A carbon neutral aviation industry? – Airbus’s new hydrogen aircraft

30th December 2020

In September 2020, the French aerospace company Airbus unveiled plans to have the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft in service by 2035; plans described by CEO Guillaume Faury as being ‘a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector’.1 The plans centre on replacing kerosene with liquid hydrogen to react with oxygen and provide combustion, alongside the use of hydrogen batteries to power hybrid engines, with Airbus presenting three new concepts with differing capacity and range.


The ‘turbofan’ design is the first of these concepts and is believed to be aimed at the transcontinental market, having a capacity of 120 to 200 passengers and a range of over 2,000+ nautical miles. The second concept uses a ‘turboprop’ design could be used for short-haul flights, having half the capacity and the range of the ‘turbofan’. The last concept is a relatively new ‘blended-wing body’ design which sees the wings merge together into the body of the aircraft, and has a similar range and capacity to the more traditionally shaped ‘turbofan’.


Switching fuel from kerosene to liquid hydrogen is not without issues, and Airbus has acknowledged this. In a press release, the company pointed to the fact that airports would need to be adapted in order to facilitate hydrogen transport and refuelling, whilst also pointing to the need for ‘increased funding for research and technology, digitalisation, and mechanisms that encourage the use of sustainable fuels and the renewal of aircraft fleets’ from other stakeholders such as national governments.2  Further issues have also been raised by Bloomberg who have highlighted that hydrogen is highly combustible, as well as describing the cost of truly carbon-neutral hydrogen as ‘prohibitive’ due to the process of electrolysis needing to ensure a zero-emission fuel.3 Currently, mass-produced hydrogen is reliant on fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal to be made, and so in its present state cannot be considered to be a ‘clean’ energy.


However, hydrogen should be considered a legitimate avenue towards a greener future and is both more efficient and cleaner than a traditional internal combustion engine; leaving behind only warm air, vapour and water.4 Furthermore, Airbus will be able to take advantage of government subsidies from governments such as Germany and Spain who have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, in addition to France’s recent pledge to invest €7 billion in hydrogen technology.5 These grants are expected to make hydrogen energy both cheaper and cleaner as developments are achieved in other renewable energy sources.


It would appear that Airbus are confident in their hydrogen vision and have announced plans to develop and test the concept over the next five years before meeting with prospective suppliers and manufactures in 2025.  With the Dutch carrier, KLM, in collaboration with the Delft University of Technology, and the British-American start-up ZeroAvia also making gains in this area it could be said that the future of aviation is hydrogen.