European Union based aerospace giant, Airbus looks to fuel the future with the first-ever zero-emission commercial aircraft

Let’s face it, airplanes are bad for the environment. And even though aircraft manufacturers have tried their best to reduce emissions, they still have a significant footprint. The latest generation of aircraft engines are very fuel-efficient and are hence greener as compared to the older jet age. Manufacturers, however, continue to strive to look for more ways to reduce the carbon footprint of these aircraft. Airbus has come with a concept that takes it to the next level. Zero-emission aircraft, yes, not reduced but zero emissions from commercial aircraft.

Airbus ZEROe Concepts

The European plane-maker has recently unveiled three different approaches to zero-emission aircraft. The project is called ZEROe. The difference between the three of them is that of configuration and aerodynamic profile.

“This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole and we intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen. The concepts we unveil today offer the world a glimpse of our ambition to drive a bold vision for the future of zero-emission flight, I strongly believe that the use of hydrogen – both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft – has the potential to significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact.”  – Guillaume Faury, Airbus CEO.

The first concept is based on any other conventional turbofan aircraft, except, the gas turbine engines will be fueled by hydrogen. Upon combustion, hydrogen emits no carbon dioxide. The hydrogen will be stored in a liquid form, in tanks aft of the rear pressure bulkhead. An aircraft such as this could carry up to 200 passengers.

The second concept is like a conventional turboprop aircraft. It would use hydrogen for the turbo-prop engines and will be able to carry up to 100 passengers.

The third concept is a more futuristic, ‘blended wing’ design. It could carry up to 200 passengers, and the blended wing with the body design will offer more flexibility for hydrogen storage and cabin options.

Hydrogen fueled aircraft hitting the skies?

Airbus says that it intends to put these aircraft into commercial service by 2035. With this, Airbus has proposed to make a radical move towards hydrogen as a sustainable fuel.

“As recently as five years ago, hydrogen propulsion wasn’t even on our radar as a viable emission-reduction technology pathway, Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus VP, Zero-Emission Aircraft said, “But convincing data from other transport industries quickly changed all that. Today, we’re excited by the incredible potential hydrogen offers aviation in terms of disruptive emissions reduction,” he added.

This move will not come easy. There are multiple challenges to put hydrogen-fueled commercial aircraft in the skies.

Radical change, radical measures.

This concept of hydrogen-fueled zero-emission airplanes relies heavily on one thing: hydrogen. Producing hydrogen on a large scale such as this is a separate challenge in of itself. Today, most methods of isolating hydrogen rely heavily on fossil fuels.

“The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem. Together with the support from government and industrial partners we can rise up to this challenge to scale-up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry.” – Guillaume Faury, CEO Airbus

“Decisive action” is the term used. To transition into a hydrogen-fueled aviation industry, the industry needs to make a lot of changes. For example, airports will require state of the art hydrogen storage, transport, and refueling infrastructure. Making this shift will require tremendous funds, not to mention the new levels of safety that comes with handling hydrogen.

It seems like a long road, but one that the aviation industry has to take. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) estimates that it will be physically possible to meet 100 percent of international jet fuel demand with sustainable aviation fuels by 2050 and that this would correspond to a 63 percent reduction in emissions.

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