Friday, January 21

What does the hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft promise us: what will its range be, when will it arrive and what challenges it entails

The electric car is one of the tools at our disposal to enable a transport infrastructure free of polluting emissions, but it is not enough. The transport sector is responsible for more than 30% of carbon dioxide emissions in the European Union, according to the European Environment Agency. Road transport accounts for 72% of the total, which positions it as the means with the most profound polluting impact, but civil aviation is responsible for 13.4% of polluting emissions.

These figures clearly reflect how important it is that the electrification of vehicles also reaches aviation, although the challenges it poses in air transport are not easy to solve. Even so, fortunately, very interesting proposals are taking shape that pursue make viable in the medium term the first commercial airline aircraft to use hydrogen as fuel.

What autonomy will they have and when will they arrive

Airbus started work on hydrogen-powered aircraft several years ago, and in September 2020 it unveiled three concept designs with different range, payload and cruising speed. This company has ensured that in 2025 it will start the development of these vehicles that do not entail polluting emissions, so if the technology linked to the use of hydrogen as fuel progresses as necessary in 2035 he hopes to put them into service.

Another organization that is also working on the development of hydrogen-powered aerial vehicles is the UK Institute of Aerospace Technology (you). A few hours ago this entity has made known the characteristics that they will have airplanes free of polluting emissions the ones he’s working on, and on paper they look good. And it is that he has dared to specify some of the benefits that will allow these aircraft to reach commercial airlines in the medium term.

According to ATI, its conceptual design will have a maximum capacity of 279 passengers and will be able to carry out intercontinental flights with the same level of comfort and the same cruising speed as the long-range aircraft currently used by airlines. According to this organization, it will be possible to use these planes to fly from Europe to America, Australia or New Zealand with only one stop to refuel, so they will offer us an experience similar to that offered by current aircraft.

ATI has anticipated that in early 2022 it will unveil three final aircraft concepts with different characteristics in a move similar to that made by Airbus last year. However, this will not be all; It will also publish the roadmap in which it will expose the development of the technology involved in these vehicles with one purpose: to put them in service in the middle of the next decade.

The use of hydrogen in aviation brings challenges that will not be easy to solve

In the context of air transport, the use of hydrogen as fuel has a very important asset: multiply by three the energy capacity of the same amount of kerosene, and one kilogram of hydrogen multiply the energy by sixty which is currently possible to store in a lithium ion battery.

This is the reason why much of the aviation industry has its eyes on this fuel. However, deploying a hydrogen-based air transport infrastructure also brings complex challenges that need to be addressed. The most obvious is their generation. If we want the entire hydrogen cycle to be clean and not entail polluting emissions, it is essential that it be generated from renewable energy sources. In short, that the fuel that these planes will use is green hydrogen.

Hydrogen is an energy vector that allows the storage and subsequent release of the energy it contains

Another challenge that we cannot ignore is the complexity associated with handling and storage. Hydrogen is not a primary energy source; is an energy vector that allows the storage and subsequent release of the energy it contains, but it is extremely light and highly flammable, so it must be confined inside hermetic and cryogenic containers subjected to high pressure that must be housed in a safe place inside the aircraft that will use it as fuel.

The last challenge is possibly the easiest to solve, although it requires investing financial resources that will also possibly complicate the deployment of hydrogen as a fuel in commercial aviation. And it is that, as we can intuit, it is essential to adapt airports so that they are able to handle and store hydrogen in conditions of maximum safety with the purpose of delivering it to airplanes before each flight. The challenges are important, but there is no doubt that the effort required to overcome them will be worth it.

Cover image | Jason Toevs

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