Airbus, the world’s largest planemaker, has revealed three visual models for its hydrogen-powered “zero emission” airplanes collectively called ‘ZEROe.’
As European governments press for cleaner technologies in their post-COVID recovery plans, the latest move is the planemaker’s attempt to attract public attention to its ‘zero-emission’ ambitions.
Airbus has set itself a 2035 deadline for bringing into operation a carbon-free commercial aircraft, which was described as ambitious by target engine manufacturers such as Safran.
The ‘ZEROe’ initiative features concepts for two conventional looking aircrafts. The first one is a turbofan jet engine capable of carrying 120-200 people over 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km).
The second concept is that of a turboprop capable of carrying up to 100 people over 1,000 nautical mile. In both the concepts, the engines will be modified to burn liquid hydrogen stored in the rear fuselage, unlike ordinary aircraft.
The third concept introduces a groundbreaking design of a “blended wing body” similar to the one that was proposed earlier this year by Airbus.
Airbus is working on a demonstrator at the same time, with initial results anticipated in 2021. “The demonstrator will allow us to assess what the most promising architecture is,” Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini said. “We see it as applicable to all Airbus products eventually.”
Airbus will need to pick technologies by 2025 to fulfill its 2035 objective, Ms Vittadini added. Other industry executives say that it could take until 2040 for such a clean break in propulsion as there are numerous challenges including developing ways to store volatile liquid hydrogen at very cold temperatures safely during flight.
Airbus has dismissed concerns about the unsafe nature of hydrogen and called for substantial investment in new energy infrastructure.
The European company said the success of these aircrafts would require infrastructure changes at airports including hydrogen transport and refueling facilities to meet the demands of daily operations. Government support for increased funding for research and technology, digitization and mechanisms to promote the use of renewable fuels will also need to be offered. Further, incentives are also necessary so that airlines can retire older, less environmentally friendly aircraft earlier than planned.
Although the usage of hydrogen has been debated since the 1970s, for widespread use, it remains too costly. Supporters say that investment in infrastructure and rising demand would lower the cost.
The bulk of hydrogen used today is derived from natural gas, which causes carbon emission. However, Airbus assures that the hydrogen used for aviation will be generated from renewable energy and extracted from water using electrolysis. If it’s powered by renewable electricity, that’s a carbon-free method, but it may still be very expensive.