French aircraft maker Airbus says battery technology is developing too slowly and that it will turn to hydrogen technology with a view to putting a long haul zero emissions aircraft in the air by 2035.
“Batteries are not improving at the rate needed to achieve that ambition,” Airbus head of zero-emission aircraft Glen Llewellyn said at a media event on Monday (Europe time), as was reported by FlightGlobal.
Llewellyn’s comments come as electric car maker Tesla prepares to unveil new battery technology that its CEO and co-founder Elon Musk has flagged will be “big”, and as other airlines and Musk himself look at battery aircraft, at least for short-haul flights.
In a statement published on the plane maker’s website on Monday, Airbus revealed three concept aircraft that it says would be powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology.
According to Airbus, all three concepts use “hydrogen as a primary power source” as the company believes it “holds exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel and is likely to be a solution for aerospace and many other industries to meet their climate-neutral targets.”
“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,” Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said in a statement.
“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.”
Aviation has been marked as the fastest growing contributor to transport-related emissions (although this has seen a marked downturn in flights in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic).
While the Air Transport Action Group notes that jet aircraft are 80% more efficient than in the 1960s, around 80% of aviation-related emissions are emitted by long haul flights over 1,500km for which there is no other alternative form of transport.
Faury was reported as saying by French news site Le Point that, “Developing a low-carbon aircraft does not require any major technological breakthrough,” (translated from French) but that the maturation of the technology would take five years and then two for that of suppliers and industrial sites.
Conversely, Elon Musk has said it will take Tesla two years to bring its new battery technology developments to market. Musk has hinted that he thinks that by 2023, battery technology will be energy dense enough to allow for electric flight, although he did not refer to short or long haul.
Airbus’ timetable corresponds to the objective of a “carbon neutral aircraft”, set in early June by the French government, which is putting 15 billion euros towards Airbus and Air France as part of an aerospace rescue plan to shore up the economic crisis caused coronavirus, on the proviso that the companies ramp up development of electric and hydrogen planes.
With this stipulation, Airbus has prepared three concepts, says Faury.
The first “is an aircraft of classic configuration that can accommodate up to 200 seats with a range of action making it possible to cover more than 3,500 kilometres”.
The cylindrical liquid hydrogen tank would be housed inside the fuselage at the rear of the aircraft.
“The second will be a propeller plane, capable of carrying around 100 passengers, for shorter journeys,” Faury was quoted as saying.
The third is “more disruptive”, Faury reportedly said, referring to it as a “flying wing of about 200 seats which allows us to study a completely different configuration for hydrogen storage and propulsion.”
Beyond technical developments, the regulatory framework must necessarily evolve by then to authorise the use of hydrogen in commercial aircraft, says Faury.
“It will also be necessary for the infrastructure in the airports to be ready and for green hydrogen to be available in large quantities,” he says.
If Airbus’ fuel cell aircraft are to be truly zero emissions, they must use “green” hydrogen produced by renewable electricity sources. However this is currently much more expensive than hydrogen produced by using fossil fuels, in addition to being less efficient.
“These concepts will help us explore and mature the design and layout of the world’s first climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft, which we aim to put into service by 2035,” said Faury.
“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.”
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.