Airbus presents three hydrogen airplane concepts for 2035
European aerospace company, Airbus, has presented three concepts of zero-emission airplanes using liquified ‘green’ hydrogen as fuel. It believes these planes will be ready to start test-flying by 2028 and ready to fly by 2035 commercially. That’s the date set by the French government to put €1,2 billion on the table by 2022 to support it as part of the rescue plan for the aviation industry.
Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury called it “a historic announcement for the whole aviation industry, in which Airbus is determined to play a leading role in what will be the most important transition the industry has ever lived.”
He got applause from the French Minister of Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, who said: “This is the best answer the aviation industry can give to stop the continuous bashing of the aviation sector.” For several months airlines are under fire for getting government support in the aftermath of the corona crisis without taking measures to reduce CO2 emissions drastically.
Classic design turbofan and turboprop
Making the airplanes of the future zero-emission, as the Airbus project ZEROe suggests, would probably help to reduce the so-called ‘flygskam’ (shame of flying). This movement originated in the Scandinavian countries and spread worldwide within certain groups of the general public.
The most ‘classic’ designs are the turbofan – with jet engines – for 120 to 200 passengers and a turboprop design – with propellers – for up to 100 passengers for the short-haul. The first should have a range of more than 2 000 nautical miles (3 700 km), capable of operating transcontinentally and powered by a modified gas-turbine engine burning hydrogen.
Cooled at minus 253 °C
Its capacities are comparable with the now popular Airbus A220 or A320. It will also have a fuel cell to generate electricity to boost the airplane’s performance when needed and power all onboard systems.
Airbus says it’s not too difficult to adapt the jet engines for burning hydrogen instead of kerosene. It’s a technique that has been used for years in rocket engines and satellites. The real challenge is to house the cylindrical tanks under pressure with -253° Celcius cooled hydrogen.
Four times more volume needed
Hydrogen has the same energetic yield as kerosine, weighs three times less, but needs four times bigger storage tanks, explains Grazia Vittadini, CTO at Airbus. The tanks will need to be stored in the back of the classic fuselage as these cylinders can’t be integrated into a traditional airplane wing as with kerosene tanks today.
The second design, the turboprop, will also burn hydrogen and is expected to have a range of 1 000 nautical miles (1 852 km). That’s perfectly suited for shorter trips. It will also use a fuel cell and have its hydrogen tanks in the back. But this goes, of course, at the expense of passenger and baggage capacity.
The most spectacular design is the delta wing Airbus is working on since 2017, the MAVERIC. Airbus already revealed a demonstrator scale model in February. It is a so-called ‘blended-wing body’ design for up to 200 passengers in which the wings merge with the main body of the aircraft. It will have a range comparable to the turbofan.
Because of the exceptionally wide fuselage that merges into the wings, passengers can sit in a V-configuration on both sides of the plane, and there is far more space to store the hydrogen tanks behind them.
It’s comparable to the Flying V-wing design the Dutch Faculty of Aerospace Engineering of TU Delft is working on with Airbus and national airline KLM as partners. That should become a zero-emission alternative at the horizon of 2050, for long-haul flights and a replacement for today’s wide-body aircraft like the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 787.
Long-haul airplane for 314 passengers
The Flying-V’s cabin is designed to be housed in both wings and the connecting center body behind the cockpit. That center body will accommodate 48 business class seats, the wings with a total width of 6,1 meters, the economy class. Six meters that are wider than a current Boeing 777X, and in total, the Flying-V should accommodate 314 passengers.
“The concepts Airbus presented this week 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 Guillaume Faury. “The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem.”
Challenge to scale-up renewable energy
“Together with the support from government and industrial partners, we can rise to this challenge to scale-up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry,” Faury adds.
“To tackle these challenges, airports will require significant hydrogen transport and refueling infrastructure to meet the needs of day-to-day operations. Support from governments will be key to meet these ambitious objectives.”
Not to mention the hydrogen will need to be ‘green’, produced by using renewable sources like wind and solar energy to be deployed massively to accomplish the pledge for zero-emission aviation.