Airbus continues working on a concept for hydrogen-powered airliners and believes it can get them into commercial service in time to meet its previously stated goal of 2035. But that will require the development of a complex ecosystem that goes beyond the current boundaries of the mainstream aerospace industry, the European manufacturer’s CEO, Guillaume Faury, said during this week’s “Pioneering Sustainable Aerospace” summit at its Toulouse headquarters.
“I am confident that Airbus can deliver on that commitment [of a hydrogen-fueled airliner entering into service in 2035], but the airplane is only part of the challenge. We can’t do it alone,” Faury told reporters.
Reaching the goal of zero-emission flights will require the support of regulators and authorities certifying these new energies and the aircraft using these new fuels and the cooperation of energy producers and infrastructure providers, he said. One big concern, Faury noted, is the scalability and availability of hydrogen to fuel aircraft around the world.
To promote the use of hydrogen at airports and build a European airport network to accommodate future hydrogen aircraft, Airbus on September 21 announced a partnership with French industrial gas solutions and technologies company Air Liquide and airport operator Vinci Airports.
France’s Lyon-Saint Exupery Airport will be the pilot location for the project and will receive a hydrogen gas distribution station in 2023 to supply both the airport's ground vehicles and those of its partners. This first phase will test the airport's facilities and dynamics as a “hydrogen hub.”
Between 2023 and 2030, the partnership will work on the deployment of liquid hydrogen infrastructures that will allow hydrogen to be provisioned into the tanks of future aircraft. By 2030, the three partners will study the possibility of equipping Vinci Airports' European network of 25 airports with the hydrogen production, storage, and supply facilities needed for use on the ground and on aircraft.
According to Faury, “hydrogen is made for aviation because we do not need to change the laws of physics.” Under a project called Zero E, Airbus revealed three concepts for possible hydrogen-powered airliners in September 2020. The airframer believes it will take about five years to develop and mature the technology and it expects to make a final decision on the most suitable hydrogen technology platform in 2024 or 2025.
The launch of the program is expected to follow around 2027, said Faury, stressing that it will require major investments from Airbus and its suppliers. “Now, it is research. It is a lot of brains and no money,” he quipped. But by the launch of the program “we will need a lot of money.” He estimated it will take about eight years to move from the launch of the program to entry into service. “The credibility of the 2035 entry into service is high, and higher every day,” he concluded.
Airbus executives refrained from providing a forecast on the role of hydrogen-powered airliners in the future fleet, noting that the technology in the first phase will be applied only to regional and short-haul flying. “It will be a long time before we see hydrogen-powered planes dominate the fleet,” chief commercial officer Christian Scherer asserted. “We will see sustainable aviation fuel for several decades for long-haul [flights],” added chief technology officer Sabine Klauke.
In February, Airbus joined Air France-KLM, airports group ADP, and the Choose Paris Region development agency in calling for expressions of interest to create hydrogen hubs to support new aircraft operations.