Airbus, a Netherland-based multinational aerospace company, has announced its plans to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035. Boeing’s (BA) European rival recently revealed three concepts that will explore different options for using hydrogen as a primary source of power to fly planes.
“This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole and we intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen,” Airbus (EADSF) CEO Guillaume Faury said in a statement. Faury said that hydrogen, both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft, has the potential to “significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact.”
The company has plans to launch several hydrogen demonstrator programs to test hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen combustion technology in the upcoming months. It is expected to launch the ZEROe aircraft program by 2025, while a full-scale aircraft prototype is anticipated to come up by the late 2020s.
The first concept could carry between 120 and 200 passengers across some 2,000 nautical miles. The turbofan design would be powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen, rather than jet fuel, through combustion. The second concept, a turboprop design, would carry up to 100 passengers over 1,000 nautical miles, while the third one, a “blended-wing body” design, would welcome up to 200 passengers for a 2,000 nautical miles trip.
Airbus dismissed concerns that hydrogen would be unsafe and has called for massive investment in new energy infrastructure. While hydrogen has been discussed since the 1970s, it remains too expensive for widespread use. Proponents say infrastructure investment and rising demand will lower the cost. Most hydrogen used today is extracted from natural gas, which creates carbon emissions. However, Airbus said the hydrogen used for aviation would be produced from renewable energy and extracted from water with electrolysis. That’s a carbon-free process if powered by renewable electricity, but it is currently more expensive.
The French government has earmarked 1.5 billion euros ($1.75 billion) for the development of carbon-free aircraft as part of a support plan for the aviation sector, which has been brought to its knees by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Overall, France is planning to invest seven billion euros in the development of hydrogen solutions, with neighbouring Germany setting aside nine billion.