Three of the biggest UK aviation companies and a host of renewable energy firms have formed the Hydrogen in Aviation alliance with the aim of making the country a leader in use of the clean fuel to decarbonise the skies.
Airbus, Rolls-Royce, easyJet and the other members of the HIA want the UK government to invest in a 10-year research programme supporting the delivery of infrastructure and ensuring the required regulatory regime is in place. The pay-off of making the UK a centre for hydrogen as an aviation fuel will be a £34 billion annual boost to the economy by 2050, they claim.
Hydrogen creates no carbon dioxide or any other planet warming gases when it is burned. Green hydrogen is created by splitting water with electrolysers using renewable energy. Hydrogen-powered flight is seen as a way for the aviation industry, which accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions, to decarbonise.
“There is no doubt that the UK has the potential to become a world leader in hydrogen aviation, which could bring with it a £34 billion per annum boost to the country’s economy by 2050, but in order to capture this opportunity, rapid change is needed and the time to act is now,” said easyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren.
“We must work together to deliver the radical solutions required for a hard-to-abate industry like aviation so we can protect and maximise the benefits that it brings to the UK economy and society and that we know British consumers want to be preserved,” said Lundgren.
Other members of HIA are renewable energy giant Orsted, components business GKN Aerospace and Bristol Airport.
The UK Government’s Jet Zero strategy for achieving net zero carbon emissions in aviation by 2050 focuses mainly on sustainable aviation fuel, which is created from agricultural waste and used cooking oil, and can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80% compared to traditional jet fuel.
However, as well as being less clean than hydrogen, SAF production is expected to struggle to scale up in the coming years keeping costs high.
Meanwhile, hydrogen as an aviation fuel is coming on in leaps and bounds.
Late last year, Rolls-Royce, which manufacture engines for the world’s largest aircraft, revealed the successful test of a regional aircraft engine powered by hydrogen. The Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A was fuelled by hydrogen produced from wind and tidal power at the European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkney Islands.
A few days later, Airbus said it’s developing a hydrogen fuel-cell engine for aircraft. Unlike the Rolls-Royce engine, which burns hydrogen to produce power, it would generate electricity in much the same way as a fuel-cell car or bus.
Airbus plans to test the engine by the middle of the decade on a modified A380 MSN1, but it is likely to be deployed on smaller commercial aircraft able to carry up to 100 passengers about 1,150 miles.
While SAF may act as a bridge away from current hydrocarbon-based jet fuels, easyJet is convinced that hydrogen, with zero CO2 emissions, is the long-term answer.
“For our business model, the short-haul model, the end goal is net-zero emissions and net-zero technology,” Thomas Haagensen, easyJet’s European director, said earlier this year. “We want to make sure that investments in [SAF] don’t distract from any investments in hydrogen, for instance, where we see the future of aviation for short-haul.”
In July of this year, hydrogen-powered flight took a significant step forward after British-American pioneer ZeroAvia completed its first set of test flights with a Dornier 228 capable of carrying 19 passengers.
The aircraft swapped one of its two engines for a ZeroAvia-developed ZA600 hydrogen-electric motor for the 10 flights from Cotswolds Airport. During the test flights, the hydrogen-powered plane reached an altitude of 5,000ft and operated at temperatures ranging from just above freezing to 30 degrees Celsius. It spent as long as 23 minutes in flight at a time.
The hydrogen-electric engine matched the power of the conventional, jet fuel-powered engine on the opposite wing, and the pilots were even able to fly with only the hydrogen engine operating in some cases.
ZeroAvia’s Dornier 228 flight testing programme is part of the HyFlyer II Project, which is part funded by the UK Government via the Aerospace Technology Institute, in conjunction with Innovate UK and the Department for Business and Trade.
The company is targeting a 300-mile range in 9-19 seat aircraft by 2025, and up to 700-mile range in 40–80 seat aircraft by 2027. Investors include American Airlines, the world’s biggest carrier, and energy supermajor Shell.
With a growing number of projects in the UK to produce and transport clean hydrogen, the infrastructure is slowly falling into place for the airline industry.
“Collaboration is key when it comes to achieving our net zero ambitions as an industry, which is why we are proud to be part of the Hydrogen in Aviation alliance,” said Rolls-Royce chief technology officer Grazia Vittadini.
“Our contribution to HIA is the capability and experience we have in pioneering new technologies and solutions – we have already tested a modern aero engine on green hydrogen and we strongly believe it is one of the solutions that will help decarbonise aviation in the mid- to long-term,” he said.
To learn more about Ryze Hydrogen, click here.