When can I travel on a hydrogen plane?

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the travel industry, particularly aviation. While these challenges cannot be underestimated, the airline industry also faces another uphill battle in its desire to make flying more environmentally friendly.

With carbon emissions from aviation accounting for about 2.5% of global emissions in 2018, the most significant way to make flying ‘greener’ is to use a fuel that doesn’t emit these harmful waste gases.

Unfortunately, unlike with electric cars, the prospect of travelling via planes with electric batteries is also not currently a viable option and the limitations of current battery technology restricts its expansion. This is largely due to the weight of the batteries needed. In larger planes, like Boeing 747s for example, the battery would far exceed the plane’s maximum take-off weight – meaning it simply couldn’t fly.

This is where using hydrogen as a fuel source could help. Combusting hydrogen directly through modified gas turbines or converting it into electric energy using fuel cells can be used to power aircraft. These hydrogen fuel cells are similar to batteries that never run flat as long as the fuel source keeps coming. What’s more, they release only water vapor as their by-product.

However, the concept of emissions-free hydrogen planes, both for smaller and larger aircraft, relies heavily on finding ways to produce large quantities of hydrogen from renewable or low-carbon sources. Currently, most large-scale production of hydrogen relies on fossil fuels, particularly methane, and is not considered to be low carbon.

So, when can we start flying on hydrogen-powered planes?

Small hydrogen planes already exist and are well on their way to becoming commercially available. ZeroAvia, for example has begun test flights in its six-seater hydrogen-electric plane of up to 250 miles. The company predicts that by 2023, it will have developed engines that can power 10 to 20-seat aircraft flying up to 500 miles — the distance between London and Zurich, or Paris and Barcelona.

But these smaller companies aren’t the only ones expressing interest in hydrogen fuels for aircraft. In September 2020, aerospace giant Airbus also unveiled plans for its own hydrogen operated aircraft vision. Its turbofan design could carry up to 200 passengers more than 2,000 miles as soon as 2035.

Airbus’s announcement signifies a major strategic shift in the commercial aviation sector, whereby hydrogen could become the norm for short- and medium-haul flights for the 2030s and beyond.

WATCH Airbus’ plans for low emission flights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Fi65k2K3Mw&feature=emb_logo

The technology’s backers say it’s safer than jet fuel on several fronts. In an accident, for example, hydrogen vents upward, because it’s lighter than air, while jet fuel pools on the ground and burns there.

While the creation of hydrogen planes is undoubtedly a step in the right direction towards us all being able to fly on these aircraft regularly, airports will also need to look into creating the right infrastructure to support the hydrogen refueling processes. Yet, with hydrogen being the most abundant element in the universe, its appeal to the aerospace industry is unlikely to fade.

Interested in the future of travel? Why not check out some of our other JustAskThales posts below: