European planemaker Airbus SE unveiled three designs it’s studying to build hydrogen-powered aircraft as it races to bring a zero-carbon passenger plane into service by 2035. The approaches include a turbofan jet with capacity for as many as 200 passengers — similar to its A321neo narrow-body — that can fly more than 2,000 nautical miles, according to a statement Monday. It would be powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen.
The manufacturer also showed a design for a propeller plane which would seat about 100 passengers for smaller distances and a flying-wing concept with 200 seats. Hydrogen is becoming an increasing area of focus for Airbus as it evaluates technologies for emission-free flight. The company is under pressure from the French and German governments, its biggest shareholders, to speed development of new aircraft after aiding the planemaker during the Coronavirus crisis. Together, the two countries have committed some 2.5 billion euros ($2.9 billion) toward cleaner propulsion.
While there are different approaches, hydrogen is likely to be used in aerospace and other industries to meet climate-neutral targets, Airbus said. The company has already said it’s targeting the mid-2030s for the first zero-emission passenger jet. Developing a hydrogen aircraft on that timeline will be a real challenge because of the massive amounts of infrastructure and government investment required. “The question is how big we can go with batteries,” said Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of zero-emissions technology at Airbus, in a briefing. “We don’t believe that it’s a today-relevant technology for commercial aircraft and we see hydrogen having more potential.”
In the turbofan design, liquid hydrogen will be stored and distributed through tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead, while at the same time hydrogen fuel cells will create electric power that complements the gas turbine. The turboprop will also use modified gas-turbine engines. The blended-wing plan, resembling a flying V, opens up new options for hydrogen storage and distribution, along with cabin layout. It is the most challenging out of the three designs, according to the company’s chief engineer, Jean-Brice Dumont.
If the company gets everything right immediately it can consider moving ahead with the “revolutionary” V-shaped model, he said. Otherwise, it is likely to choose one of the other two, more classic designs and look at developing such an aircraft later. The company, based in Toulouse, France, plans to launch several hydrogen demonstrator programs over the next few months. It expects it will take another two years to choose suppliers and manufacturing sites before the program is scheduled for around 2028, and the aircraft comes into service in 2035. The program will likely cost Airbus billions, said Dumont.
The success of any such program would depend on infrastructure at airports and support from governments to fund development, as well as incentives for airlines to retire older aircraft, Airbus said. The company has already started discussions with airports, airlines and energy companies. It is also calling on governments to put the right incentives in place to push the industry to shift toward hydrogen power. The French state is backing research into low-carbon flight and sees Airbus’ development of a hydrogen-powered plane as the best answer to “aviation bashing,” French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on LCI Television Monday.