Airbus thinks that by 2035, the first zero-emission commercial aircraft could be flying, and they presented three concepts as a stepping stone towards that vision. They are exploring hydrogen propulsion under the working name ZEROe, which they believe can cut aircraft emissions by up to 50%.
Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus Vice-President of Zero-Emission Aircraft, said that five years ago, the company didn’t even consider hydrogen propulsion to be a viable technology to cut emissions. The use of the hydrogen propulsion in other transport areas however has produced data that shows its potential for aviation as well.
As recently as five years ago, hydrogen propulsion wasn’t even on our radar as a viable emission-reduction technology pathway. Today, we’re excited by the incredible potential hydrogen offers aviation in terms of disruptive emissions reduction.
– Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus VP, Zero-Emission Aircraft
Airbus has the ambition to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035. They think hydrogen has the potential to reduce aviation’s CO₂ emissions by 50%. Broadly speaking, there are two main ways of utilizing hydrogen for propulsion. There is hydrogen combustion, and hydrogen fuel cells. Airbus’ ZEROe technology uses a hybrid of the two, where modified gas-turbine engines burn liquid hydrogen, and are complemented by electrical power created by hydrogen fuel cells. They presented three different aircraft concepts that each take a slightly different approach to integrating the hydrogen storage and distribution.
The first is a fairly conventional high-wing aircraft with a six-bladed propeller on each wing, resembling a turbo-prop regional aircraft of today. It will carry around 100 passengers over 1,000 nautical miles.
The second concept aircraft looks like a conventional commercial aircraft with turbofans but also incorporates a flexible, high-aspect ratio wing. It will carry around 200 passengers over 2,000 nautical miles. In this and the turboprop concept, the hydrogen is stored behind the rear pressure bulkhead.
They also presented a blended-wing body design with boundary-layer ingesting engines mounted in the rear and the hydrogen tanks stored underneath the wings. Similarly to the turbofan concept, it carries around 200 passengers over 2,000 nautical miles.
Hydrogen has a different volumetric energy density than jet fuel so we have to study other storage options and aircraft architectures than existing ones. This means the visual appearance of our future zero-emission aircraft will change. These three configurations provide us with some exciting options for further exploration.
– Jean-Brice Dumont, Airbus EVP Engineering
Since Airbus wants the first zero-emission aircraft to roll off its assembly lines and enter service by 2035, they need to properly launch the ZEROe aircraft program by 2025, which gives the engineers five years to develop the hydrogen technologies. They expect to launch several demonstrator programs testing the fuel cell and hydrogen combustion in the following months, and hope to have a full-scale aircraft prototype flying by the end of the decade.