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Is Hydrogen the Answer to Zero-Emissions Air Travel?

Sarah Venning
hydrogen powered plane, hydrogen fuelled airliner

Air travel has become intrinsic to everyday life. From holidays to business trips, most people find themselves boarding at least a few flights every year; however, there is no disputing that air travel dramatically increases our carbon footprint. Jet fuel combustion produces greenhouse gases that damage the ozone layer, meaning that one of the biggest challenges facing the aerospace industry is how to make commercial passenger planes more environmentally-friendly.

Major aircraft manufacturer Airbus have recently taken great strides in this area by unveiling three new concepts for hydrogen-fuelled commercial airliners, which they are hoping to introduce into service as early as 2035. So how can hydrogen revolutionise the way aircraft are fuelled and lower our carbon footprint?

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Airbus Concepts:

The use of hydrogen as an alternative to jet fuel could overhaul aircraft design entirely.

The new aircraft concepts developed by Airbus certainly give the rest of the aviation industry plenty of food for thought. With all three concepts powered by hydrogen combustion instead of jet fuel, these new designs are completely different to anything that has been seen within the aviation industry before. 

Although the way that the planes are fuelled remains uniform across all three concepts, there are key differences in the designs of these planes that set them apart from each other. The first two are turbofan and turboprop designs, which have a range of 2000 and 1000 nautical miles respectively, whereas the third design features wings that are blended with the body of the aircraft. From an aesthetic standpoint, this design is completely set apart from the traditional image of a commercial aircraft, although Airbus promises that it offers a range of possibilities concerning cabin layout, as well as the distribution of hydrogen fuel.

These concepts are far from being physical prototypes; however, they do act as an indicator of how the aerospace industry plans to tackle the issue of climate change. The use of hydrogen as a viable alternative to jet fuel could overhaul aircraft design entirely and change the face of aviation for the better.

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How Would Hydrogen Work As Jet Fuel?

In the EU, aviation accounts for a massive 3.6% of emitted greenhouse gases.

The use of hydrogen as an alternative to jet fuel is not a new concept. In fact, it has been around since the 1980s when aircraft manufacturer Tupolev developed a hydrogen-fuelled prototype of one of their existing airliners. Since then, a number of manufacturers have produced prototype hydrogen planes; however, with the rise of global warming, this solution is now gaining momentum as a feasible alternative to bring into the mainstream.

The problem is a big one. In the EU, aviation accounts for a massive 3.6% of emitted greenhouse gases. This is due to the fact that traditional jet fuel - or kerosene - releases a huge amount of greenhouse gases when burned. With the sheer number of commercial flights in operation today, these emissions have resulted in a considerable contribution towards global warming.

However, the combustion of hydrogen only releases water vapour, which is what makes it such a viable answer to the climate change dilemma. Research has shown that hydrogen can be used to fuel planes with no compromise on speed or passenger capacity; therefore, the aviation industry would be able to continue operating as normal, minus the damaging effects of greenhouse gases.

Innovation within such a safety-centric industry however, undoubtedly comes with a lot of red tape - and rightly so. This is why hydrogen-fuelled flight has yet to become the norm; new regulations and testing standards have to be drawn up to reflect the technology in question, as well as considerable developments in the fields of hydrogen storage and delivery. The entire blueprint of an aircraft engine would need to be overhauled and adapted to accommodate a different type of fuel. In short, the use of hydrogen as a fuel would require an entire facelift for the aviation industry as a whole.

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Will Hydrogen-Powered Flight Become the Norm?

The production of hydrogen-fuelled plane concepts are certainly a massive step in the right direction.

The emission levels produced by commercial aircraft are currently so large that major developments are more than just a possibility - they're an inevitability. The aviation industry cannot continue to operate with kerosene-fuelled planes indefinitely; substantial changes are required in order to protect the planet and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The new concepts put forward by Airbus show that this issue is being given more consideration in light of our understanding of climate change. As one of the biggest manufacturers of commercial aircraft, Airbus may inadvertently build a bandwagon for other OEMs to jump onto as they shine more light onto the problem, as well as the solution. It would therefore be unsurprising if we start to see other aircraft manufacturers following suit, spelling positive transformation for the industry overall.

We're unlikely to see rapid growth in this area, but the production of hydrogen-fuelled plane concepts are certainly a massive step in the right direction. Although the use of hydrogen fuel would ultimately mean more changes to aviation than ever before, these changes - however uncomfortable - are absolutely necessary to safeguard the overall health of our planet.

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About Sarah Venning

Sarah is a sales & marketing content writer, with eight years of experience within the engineering & manufacturing industry.  Working both at Qimtek and on a freelance basis, she can usually be found hammering away at a keyboard or with her head in a pile of engineering drawings. 

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