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May 24, 2024
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If the ecosystem for hydrogen will not be ready in time, Airbus might decide to delay the launch of its first ZEROe hydrogen airliner. President and CEO Guillaume Faury gave this warning signal at the start of the first day of the Airbus Summit. But subsequent presentations and program updates confirm that the European airframer actually is going full-thrust to get its hydrogen project underway. Airbus might delay ZEROe if hydrogen ecosystem lags behind.

“Is the world moving fast enough on getting toward net zero? Not yet. That’s why I say it is about speed and acceleration. Ambition isn’t met by action, especially when it comes to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Green hydrogen is in the early stages, but it isn’t enough and the clock is ticking”, said Faury, who presented his opening speech virtually from Paris as he had unexpected commitments in the US.

The Toulouse Declaration of the aerospace industry last February and the ICAO Assembly resolution in October are confirming that the industry is fully committed to getting to net zero in 2050, Faury said. But governments need to come in line behind the aerospace and airline industry. As an example, Faury said that the energy sector would need to invest $4 trillion to satisfy all the requirements for sustainable fuels (SAF and hydrogen) by 2030, but only funding for $2 trillion seems to be in place. “The pace of change may be uncomfortable but it is needed.”

A model of the hydrogen-electric fuel cell motor is currently being developed. (Richard Schuurman)

Airbus made the strategic choice to opt for hydrogen as the best option to really get aviation to net zero in 2050. That’s why it launched ZEROe in September 2020, unveiling concepts for a hydrogen-powered turboprop aircraft, another one with turbofans, and a third based on the blended wing concept. During the first Airbus Summit in September 2021, the airframer offered the first updates of the project and more have been presented today in Toulouse and will be in Munich on Thursday.

But the slow pace at which the hydrogen ecosystem is progressing is a concern for Faury. Already last year, he said that getting regulatory approval might be slowing down ZEROe. He repeated that today: “The airplane isn’t the difficult part. We need the regulatory framework, and how to use it. That’s why we need to drive this regulatory framework to go forward. We need green hydrogen by the end of the decade, that’s why we work hard on getting the ecosystem ready to drive this change.” He thinks hydrogen producers should make sure that there is enough of it to supply the shipping and aviation industry.

When AirInsight asked Faury what it would mean for ZEROe if the ecosystem will not be ready in time, he replied: “To have airlines flying a hydrogen aircraft in the second half of the next decade, we will need to have a clean, developed, and certified aircraft. That’s in our hands and is not the most difficult part of the equation. We need a regulatory framework (…) to use hydrogen, certify the plane, and transport and distribute hydrogen. That’s where we try to collaborate to drive this regulatory framework. And we need green hydrogen in large quantities to be available at the airport. The lack of it in the second half of the next decade is a big concern for us.”

“Would we face the situation by 2027 or 2028, when we have to make a decision about the launch of the hydrogen plane, that there is no certainty that there is enough hydrogen by entry into service by 2035, that could be a reason for delaying the launch of the program. Even when the technologies on the planes are mature. So we take this energy dimension very seriously.”

Fuel cell progress

As Vice President of Zero Emission Programs, Glenn Lllewellyn, told AirInsight later in a video interview, that’s not a situation he would like to face. Llewellyn thinks that Airbus should lead the initiative and convince the energy industry that they get on board the hydrogen roadmap.

Llewellyn and other top management of the ZEROe team shared various status updates on how the program is going. A major step is that within a 2.5-year period, Airbus has developed and run initial tests of a fuel cell motor laboratory scale capable of 1 Megawatt. Serious testing will commence on a special test rig near Munich. In a fuel cell system, hydrogen is split to make electricity that can be stored in batteries to drive electric motors.

Hauke Peer Lüdders, head of fuel cell systems of ZEROe, said that the target is to get a 2 MW turboprop engine available in 2025. Until then, the focus is on shrinking the size of the fuel cell motor and reducing its weight, so that it fits within the engine nacelle. The batteries would be positioned in the belly of the aircraft. Airbus is collaborating with Elring Klinger, which is a German company that is hugely experienced with fuel cell technology. The system configuration with a turboprop electric engine will be tested on Airbus A380 prototype MSN001, when it is modified for hydrogen tests in 2025/2026. Hydrogen tanks will be installed in the A380 next year.

Both Llewellyn and Lüdders state that today’s updates on the fuel cell motor don’t mean that Airbus has already decided that this is the preferred technology for a hydrogen-powered aircraft. The other is the direct injection of hydrogen in a gas turbine. The tests on the A380 will have to offer further insights, as the double-decker aircraft will also be used for direct injection of hydrogen in a GE Passport engine. Lüdders said that it hasn’t been decided yet which configuration will be tested first on the A380, the fuel cell option or the turbofan.

Risky technologies

As Llewellyn said, Airbus intends to do as much research on the ‘risky’ technology before 2027, the year slated as the one to make the decision whether to launch a ZEROe airliner for entry into service in 2035. “That gives us seven years to develop the aircraft. It’s key to manage as much as possible the out-of-cycle technology to de-risk the program in the early development stage.” Lüdders added that the design of the airframe will follow only after 2027. “We know how what is needed to design an aircraft, it is the new technology that needs to be developed first.”

However, Llewellyn confirmed that Airbus is currently looking at a 100-seater with a range of 1.000 nautical miles/1.850 kilometers and a 200-seater with a range of 2.000nm/3.700km. Forget about the blended wing, that was something that would take too much extra time to develop and is something for the future. It’s also clear that the best place to store the liquid and super-cold hydrogen is within insulated tanks aft of the rear pressure bulkhead.

In other updates, Airbus said that it has teamed with ArianeGroup to build the first liquid-hydrogen fuel station in Toulouse that should be operational in 2025. ArianeGroup, known for the space launchers, will design, produce, and support the operations of the liquid hydrogen fueling system for ZEROe. The hydrogen itself will be provided by HyPort, a joint venture between ENGIE Solutions and the Regional Agency for Energy and Climate in Occitanie (AREC).

author avatar
Richard Schuurman
Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016. Richard is contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He also writes for Airliner World, Aviation News, Piloot & Vliegtuig, and Luchtvaartnieuws Magazine. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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