The European manufacturer is committed to sustainable aviation. The president of Airbus announced that the group could manufacture its own engines for future hydrogen-powered aircraft, with the goal of launching the first commercial hydrogen aircraft as early as 2035.
In an interview with the German newspaper “Welt am Sonntag”, Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, declared that the group would be able to manufacture its own engines for its future hydrogen-powered aircraft: “We have the skills to do this”, while specifying a possible “change of strategy”. This announcement is of some concern to aircraft engine suppliers such as Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation, Safran, and Pratt & Whitney. They are not yet ready to provide such technology, as long-haul aircraft will require standard jet engines running on kerosene for some time to come.
In the fall of 2020, Airbus opted for the strategy of moving toward hydrogen-powered aircraft. The Airbus group could manufacture its own engines while keeping the development of certain technologies in-house. Under the name of the ZEROe project, Airbus is working on at least three different aircraft concepts in order to start mass production of a hydrogen aircraft by 2035.
Until now, Airbus has emphasized the need for an ecosystem of hydrogen companies to carry out its projects related to this new fuel. This includes not only the production of the fuel, but also its transportation, storage and handling. However, the help of European governments is needed to set up industrial partnerships. Moreover, if Airbus builds a hydrogen engine, there must then be enough sustainable hydrogen available in the long term to make the investment worthwhile. Then, if the EU wants to be climate neutral by 2050, aviation will also have to adapt. It remains to be seen if and how this will work with jet engines in the years to come. Airbus will certainly expect a contribution from the EU, as will almost all companies that have to adapt their activities in favor of sustainable development.
Hydrogen propulsion is a fairly disruptive technology compared to conventional motorization, and requires a new type of production chain. Referring to the hydrogen needed for propulsion, the group’s leader also mentioned the need for infrastructure, and “a lot of electricity without CO2”.
Hydrogen propulsion can involve jet engines burning hydrogen, or fuel cells producing electricity, which then powers electric motors. But for an Airbus aircraft using electric technology, the hydrogen fuel cell would be a challenge, in addition to another challenge Airbus is working on: cryogenic fuel tanks. The Airbus group already has experience with cryogenic hydrogen through its subsidiary Airbus Space and Defense, which manages the Ariane space program. For the moment, this is a technology to be developed first on small aircraft, before being able to implement such technologies on aircraft the size of an A320 in the more distant future.
Then, hydrogen can be used to create synthetic fuels for jet engines. This is why Airbus is pushing for the hydrogen ecosystem. Some SAFs (sustainable aviation fuels) involve hydrogen, and Airbus is also a supporter of SAFs.
Airbus recently announced a major hiring spree of 6,000 employees in the first half of 2022. These hires will be aimed at supporting the company’s decarbonization efforts on new CO2-free technologies, digital transformation, and cybersecurity. A carbon-free support infrastructure would be essential to enable aviation to move to net zero. In addition, the group’s leader mentioned a very likely competition for green electricity as the industry shifts to renewable energy.
Regarding financial investment, Joseph Kallo (founder and CEO of H2Fly), suggested that the cost of renewable electricity is an element often forgotten in decarbonization plans. Therefore, he said, we should be thinking about multi-billion rather than million-dollar investments to support the transition to hydrogen aircraft.
Like Airbus, green hydrogen projects are starting to emerge with the help of investment funds, start-ups are working on other projects such as transport modules or airships, and powertrain developers are setting their own schedules for entry into service.