Airbus has chosen its preferred technology for the next generation of aircraft power: hydrogen. With the release of three concepts in the regional to small airliner category — a turboprop, a turbofan and a blended wing body aircraft — as part of its “ZEROe” zero-emissions programme, the European airframer is aiming at a 2035 date to introduce this substantially less polluting power source for aircraft.
“France, land of innovation!” tweeted French president Emmanuel Macron at the news, and indeed it is promising to see this sort of futurism and big-picture thinking as the climate crisis continues to loom.
But it should be noted up front that Airbus is perhaps over-egging the pudding by calling these “climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft”. Hydrogen can be produced for fueling without direct carbon emissions, but it will have a supply chain, and whether it is burned or used in a fuel cell there will be some consequences at altitude.
A May 2020 report (PDF) by McKinsey for the European Union suggests that, for hydrogen, “combustion could reduce climate impact in flight by 50 to 75 percent and fuel-cell propulsion by 75 to 90 percent”.
Of the aircraft proposed, the smallest essentially looks like an update of the ATR 72 turboprop, but sized for “up to 100 passengers” over some 1000nm in range, slightly further than the Airbus-Leonardo turboprop in current service.
The next size up is a turbofan narrowbody carrying some 120-200 people for “2000+” nautical miles, which would give transcontinental range in the US, or all of China from Beijing. The aircraft rather resembles a size-adjusted A220 or A320.
Of note, the wings of both these aircraft are positioned around two thirds back on the aircraft rather than in the middle, which would take account of the substantial weight of the hydrogen compared with kerosene, but it’s not clear how weight and balance as the fuel is utilised would be managed.
On the inside, the passenger experiences on the turboprop and turbofan aircraft aren’t expected to be revolutionary, with Airbus vice president of engineering Jean-Brice Dumont highlighting in response to a question from Runway Girl Network that, “for the passengers, it shouldn’t mean a lot! It means being excited by flying with no climate impact. That’s the heart of the passenger. But seen by the passenger themselves, at least in two out of the three concept planes, it wouldn’t change much.”
The third aircraft is the most revolutionary design, a blended wing body that is clearly developed from the Airbus Maveric testbed demonstrator revealed only this February. Interestingly, the concept appears to have moved fairly swiftly to distributed propulsion along the rear rather than DC-10-style “banjo” turbofans on the Maveric project.
The shape of the aircraft, with a substantial part of the rear flattening out, could provide some interesting storage options for the hydrogen, especially if it is of a size to seat “up to 200 passengers” as Airbus suggests. But the scale of the blended wing body aircraft in the digital renderings that Airbus produced is curious.
The passenger doors and flight deck windows seem to be of a similar size, but if the door is two metres high then the rest of the aircraft could only seat perhaps five to ten passengers. Obviously this will need to scale up, but this — and indeed the lack of wheels on the rendering of the turboprop — raises questions about exactly where in the process Airbus is with all of this.
For passenger experience on the blended wing body, says Airbus’ engineering head Dumont, “it’s very exciting to see how we can modify the passenger cabin arrangement on a flying wing, but that’s a side topic to the development of hydrogen onboard the aircraft.”
It is clear that this is but the official start of a fifteen-year process to get a smaller hydrogen-powered aircraft certified and flying. There are many questions remaining: what precise method will be used to power the aircraft? How will fueling infrastructure be provided? What are the technology enablers needed? Just how much less polluting is hydrogen power, and how can this be minimised further? What is the ecosystem of other companies that needs to be in place to secure this future?
“Of course it’s not going to be easy,” says the airframer’s chief technology officer Grazia Vittadini. “But at Airbus we don’t like easy things. Let’s not forget that we are only fifty years old, and that we started from scratch… building the first widebody aircraft to cross the ocean on two engines. We’ve demonstrated it in the past, and we look forward to demonstrating it in the future.”
All images credited to Airbus.
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