In a world that is now ceaselessly conscious of the environmental impact of aviation, hydrogen emerges as a beacon of hope, offering a revolutionary solution to reduce carbon emissions and propel the industry towards a cleaner future.
The limitless potential of hydrogen-powered aircraft presents an opportunity to not only address the urgent need for decarbonisation but also to foster technological innovation and shape a new era of sustainable air travel.
As we navigate the challenges of the 21st century, embracing hydrogen aviation becomes a compelling choice, signalling our commitment to both environmental stewardship and technological progress.
Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, along with a select group of companies, is actively pursuing initiatives to retrofit smaller aircraft with hydrogen-powered technology.
The British aerospace specialist is set on raising £30 million this year as part of their ambitious agenda to develop an electric aircraft powered by hydrogen. They aim to have the aircraft ready for launch as early as 2026.
Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, which originated from Cranfield University and counts the venture arm of French aerospace group Safran among its supporters, announced that it is currently in discussions with over a dozen potential new investors.
According to the company, the funds raised in this round of fundraising, following a previous round last year, will be allocated towards the development of a flying demonstration aircraft and conducting preliminary work on the final product. Chief Executive Paul Hutton said: “It will give us runway until the end of 2024”.
As part of their efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the aviation industry is actively exploring various fuel technologies, such as sustainable aviation fuels and “green” hydrogen produced from renewable electricity by extracting it from water. These advancements aim to transform the industry’s environmental impact.
Airbus, the European aerospace company, intends to utilise a superjumbo A380 aircraft for testing hydrogen-powered jet engines. This forms part of their strategy to introduce a zero-emissions aircraft into operational service by the year 2035.
Within the industry, there exists varying viewpoints regarding the timeline for the deployment of hydrogen power due to the complex technical hurdles involved. Concerns also arise regarding the availability of a sufficient supply of green hydrogen. According to Hutton, hydrogen-powered aviation using fuel cell technology is not too distant. Cranfield, along with a few other companies, is actively pursuing plans to implement this technology on regional or subregional aircraft.
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In April, Cranfield, leveraging its extensive experience in aircraft modification and design for esteemed companies like Airbus and Rolls-Royce, revealed its intentions to merge with British aircraft manufacturer Britten-Norman. This merger aims to strengthen Cranfield’s capabilities and expand its presence in the industry. The two companies had previously established a collaboration on a UK government-supported project to retrofit a nine-seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft with Cranfield’s hydrogen fuel cell engine. This joint effort symbolises their commitment to advancing hydrogen-powered aviation technology.
The latest merger would enable the companies to expedite their plans and enhance the probability of obtaining certification from aviation regulators for the modified aircraft within the committed timeframe. “It’s about credibility and being able to deliver and sell the product — a zero- emissions aircraft.” says Hutton.
Cranfield is actively pursuing a four-stage development plan, with their ultimate ambition being the design and manufacturing of a brand-new regional aircraft. The initial phase of the plan involves retrofitting the nine-seater aircraft with a hydrogen gas-powered fuel cell engine. Subsequently, the focus will shift to modifying an existing 19-seater aircraft with a liquid-hydrogen fuel cell-based system.
Cranfield’s goal is to design a larger regional aircraft capable of accommodating up to one hundred seats.
Hutton is optimistic that hydrogen could drive growth in the market for smaller subregional aircraft, especially in response to the mounting pressure to reduce emissions. He remains confident despite concerns about the cost of producing green hydrogen, asserting that it would become economically competitive as production volumes increased and governments invested in alternatives to fossil fuels.
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However, sceptics argue that existing sustainable aviation fuels, derived from fats, vegetable oils, or synthesized sources, present a more practical solution for emission reduction. They point out that the extensive infrastructure investments necessary to establish hydrogen power as a viable option pose significant challenges.
Regardless, the success of Cranfield’s endeavours could have broader implications for the UK. If all of Cranfield’s plans materialise, it would mark the first time in over four decades that a British company has developed a new commercial aircraft.
Hutton has highlighted that the aerospace sector has primarily transformed into a “supply chain industry,” primarily supporting major manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing. However, he believes that the UK has a unique opportunity to re-engage in aircraft design and manufacturing as the aerospace industry transitions from evolutionary change to revolutionary change with the emergence of new technologies.
What is certain is that the development of hydrogen-powered aviation holds significant importance in transforming the industry’s environmental impact, reducing carbon emissions, creating a myriad of new green jobs, and enabling revolutionary changes in aircraft design and manufacturing.
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