Airbus is getting serious about developing a new generation of zero-emission airliners, the first of which should be available around 2035. The next-gen Airbus of airliners is to fly on hydrogen, it said on September 21.
CEO Guillaume Faury has said before that Airbus is serious about developing a zero-emission aircraft by 2035. This year is also mentioned in the French state aid package that was provided to the aviation industry this Spring. The multi-billion package was conditional to the industry taking serious steps to produce a new and clean generation of airliners.
2035 isn’t chosen at random: around 2030-2035 the current generation of Airbus-airliners (A320neo, A350) needs replacement. Numerous studies, including a recent one from Clean Sky on which Airinsight reported in July, pressed the industry to start developing new zero-emission aircraft this decade if it wants to meet the 2035 deadline. In their joint study, Clean Sky and the Fuel Cells & Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertakings pushed for hydrogen as an alternative to kerosene.
Technologies to be selected by 2025
As Chief Technical Officer Grazia Vittadini said, “protecting the climate and our environment are the key indispensable factors upon which we have to build the future of flight.” That’s why Airbus has come up with a plan to bring the first zero-emission aircraft to the market by 2035. “This means we have to select the necessary technologies already by 2025 and develop a whole set of technology pathways.”
The schedule includes the launch in 2021 of a hydrogen ground demonstrator and a hydrogen flight demonstrator in 2023. In 2024, the final selection of the hydrogen technology would be made which would lead to the actual hydrogen demonstrator in 2025.
Like the Clean Sky study, Vittadini identified the storage of hydrogen as one of the key issues that need to be addressed. Because of its volatile characteristics, hydrogen takes four times the space for storage compared to current aviation fuels. This has an impact on fuselage length and aerodynamic performance and drag. Also, the hydrogen needs to be stored at cryogenic temperatures.
Airbus Executive Vice-President of Engineering Jean Brice Dumont presented three zero-emission or ZERO-e concepts. He outlined that these are not actual programs that are being developed yet. This makes it too early to tell which will be the first to be launched.
The first is a 120-200 seater that could replace the A320neo-family. It has a conventional layout except that it uses modified gas turbines that run on hydrogen. In a layout similar to that suggested in the Clean Sky study, the hydrogen tanks are placed behind the rear pressure bulkhead inside the fuselage. Without the need for tanks inside the wings, they can be very slim. The aircraft would have a range of little over 2.000 nautical miles.
A new feature would be the “chimney” on top of the vertical tailfin, which would be used to vent hydrogen in case of an emergency, but Dumont stressed hydrogen is safe and “we are really on top of it.”
The second hydrogen concept is that of a high-wing turboprop with a T-tail for up to 100 passengers, with the fuel tanks again placed in the fuselage. It would have a range of some 1.000 nautical miles. Fuel-cell technology together with an embedded electric motor would provide an extra boost.
The animation picture presented in the press release doesn’t identify details of the wing design, but it looks like a very slim, supercritical, and thus very efficient concept. A turboprop would be a first for Airbus.
The third concept is the most futuristic as it is a blended wing. Airbus has been testing blended wing concepts for some time, like its own Maverick that has been test-flown in 2019. The OEM also participates in the KLM Flying-V concept study which was test flown this July by students of Delft University in The Netherlands.
The blended wing concept is ideal for storing and distributing the hydrogen tanks as well as embarking on new cabin concepts. The proposed aircraft would seat up to 200 passengers. The engines would be on top of the fuselage.
Battery technology going not quickly enough
As Vice President of Zero Emission Aircraft, Glen Llewellyn, said, development of battery technology isn’t going at the pace Airbus wants. “This is why hydrogen comes in. It has several thousands of times of energy per kilogram available than batteries could have today.” Batteries will have their place in aviation but rather for smaller applications. This doesn’t mean electric power is no longer part of the plan for large commercial aircraft. As Vittadini said, hydrogen will be used for fuel cells to generate electricity that will power engines.
Airbus stressed that its next-gen of hydrogen airliners can only be successful if the entire airline, airport infrastructure, and energy network will transition to the new fuel. As the Clean Sky study also said, it will take major support from governments to create the right infrastructure for hydrogen, including the production and availability at airports.
““Hydrogen is one of the promising technologies to allow mobility to continue fulfilling the basic human need for mobility, in better harmony with our environment, driving social and economic progress,” Vittadini summed up the reason why Airbus is strongly believing in the hydrogen way to go. “We do not have a choice.” With that comes Airbus’s preparedness to invest billions in this transition of technologies, Llewellyn said. Other industries will benefit from this.