Airbus Plans Hydrogen Fuel Cell Aircraft

Airbus has announced the development of a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine, which will be tested on the world's largest commercial airplane. On November 30, the French aviation giant revealed at Airbus Summit 2022 that the engine will be mounted between the wings and tail of a modified A380 superjumbo. The first test flights are scheduled for 2026 as part of the Airbus Zero initiative, which aims to launch a zero-emission aircraft by 2035.

Airbus had previously revealed concept designs for an aircraft powered by liquid hydrogen fuel and combustion engines.  Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of Zero-Emission Aircraft, suggested that fuel cells alone could power smaller commercial aircraft.

The engine converts hydrogen into electricity via fuel cells, which then powers a propeller.

Hydrogen has long been promoted as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional jet fuel, either as a combustible fuel or as a source of electricity via fuel cells. The aviation industry accounts for 2.8% of global CO2 emissions, but it faces more difficult challenges in decarbonizing than other sectors, and progress has been slow.

However, even before entirely new aircraft based on hydrogen are developed, it could become an asset in commercial aviation. Rolls-Royce and budget airline EasyJet announced days before Airbus' announcement that they had successfully converted a regular airplane engine to run on liquid hydrogen fuel — a world first, they claim.

Rolls-Royce used "green" hydrogen, such as wind and tidal energy, as the fuel for its test.

The use of the hydrogen leaves a different carbon impact. A minor amount of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide is released when liquid hydrogen is burned outdoors. However, using green hydrogen to create electricity in a fuel cell only produces warm air and water.

Which hydrogen technology will gain traction over the coming ten years will be clear. Either choice would contribute to the long-term sustainability of low-carbon air travel.

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