Airbus has revealed three concepts for the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft which could enter service by 2035. All of these concepts rely on hydrogen as a primary power source—an option which Airbus believes holds exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel and is likely to be a solution for aerospace and many other industries to meet their climate-neutral targets.

To achieve that 2035 deadline with commercial product, Airbus would have to select the specific technologies by 2025, according to Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer.

This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole and we intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen. The concepts we unveil today offer the world a glimpse of our ambition to drive a bold vision for the future of zero-emission flight. I strongly believe that the use of hydrogen—both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft—has the potential to significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact.

—Guillaume Faury, Airbus CEO

The three concepts—all codenamed “ZEROe”—for a first climate neutral zero-emission commercial aircraft include:

A turbofan design (120-200 passengers) with a range of 2,000+ nautical miles, capable of operating transcontinentally and powered by two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines. The liquid hydrogen will be stored and distributed via tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead.

AirbusZEROe Turboprop Concept

A turboprop design (up to 100 passengers) using two hybrid hydrogen turboprop engines instead of turbofans. It would be capable of traveling more than 1,000 nautical miles, making it a perfect option for short-haul trips.

AirbusZEROe Blended Wing Body Concept

A “blended-wing body” design (up to 200 passengers) concept in which the wings merge with the main body of the aircraft with a range similar to that of the turbofan concept. In the blended-wing body configuration, two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines provide thrust. The exceptionally wide fuselage opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution, and for cabin layout.

These concepts will help us explore and mature the design and layout of the world’s first climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft, which we aim to put into service by 2035. The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem. Together with the support from government and industrial partners we can rise up to this challenge to scale-up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry.

—Guillaume Faury

In order to tackle these challenges, airports will require significant hydrogen transport and refueling infrastructure to meet the needs of day-to-day operations. Support from governments will be key to meet these ambitious objectives with increased funding for research & technology, digitalisation, and mechanisms that encourage the use of sustainable fuels and the renewal of aircraft fleets to allow airlines to retire older, less environmentally friendly aircraft earlier.

To evaluate and validate these new concept aircraft and assess whether they could be matured into viable future products, Airbus will be focusing its efforts on a number of technological pathways.

Airbus sees three primary uses for hydrogen in aircraft: combustion through a modified gas turbine; conversion into electrical energy via a fuel cell; and conversion to synthetic kerosene.

For us it is particularly important to combine the first two of these three elements, meaning having direct combustion of hydrogen through modified gas turbines with an embedded electric motor powered by fuel cells. To accelerate on this path, we already have in the pipeline a zero-emission demonstrator which will be fundamental especially to de-risk concepts such as refueling of such an aircraft and a safe storage and distribution of hydrogen onboard an aircraft. We aim to get the first results by 2021 and that’s an extremely short time indeed to gain insights and the risk safe storage of hydrogen on board an aircraft.

Now just think. Hydrogen has the same energy levels of kerosene so granting the same type of range, of performance for an aircraft with one-third of the weight. Now, the catch is in the volume here as at isoenergetic conditions the volume of hydrogen is four times as much as the one of kerosene so you can understand here how it will be fundamental to get this point right: tank design and integration onto an aircraft.

One of the most typical solutions is to embed this tank in the fuselage and this brings us then to longer stretch fuselage to wider diameters with an impact on aerodynamic performance—more drag—so it’s really key to get the balance right.

—Grazia Vittadini

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