Could hydrogen-fuelled flights be a reality by 2035?

Hydrogen fuels could address aviation's climate impact in the future.

Sustainability has become a key topic on the agenda for the aviation sector. At the Farnborough International Airshow, the first major European air show since COVID-19, the organizers launched a new Aerospace Global Forum to accelerate change and drive the transition to net zero. During the event, the World Economic Forum’s Target True Zero initiative released its first report, Unlocking Sustainable Battery and Hydrogen-Powered Flight. This report sets out the role new propulsion technologies utilising battery or hydrogen power can play in contributing to the industry’s decarbonisation efforts.

The Target True Zero initiative was launched in 2021 to accelerate the development and deployment of these new technologies in three ways:

  • Bringing together leaders from across the entire ecosystem to develop fact-based perspectives on alternative propulsion;
  • Mobilising different stakeholders to take actions that enable and accelerate the transition to clean aviation technologies; and
  • Ensuring the potential of alternative propulsion for addressing aviation’s climate impact is realised.

The report finds that by 2035 three promising types of alternative propulsion aircraft could offer viable alternatives to conventional carbon emitting aircraft. Fully battery electric aircraft could enable completely emission free flight over the shortest distances. Hydrogen, meanwhile, could be used to electrify aircraft with fuel cells over mid-range distances, or through direct combustion. The latter could be applied to any aircraft operating any distances flown today.

Reducing carbon emissions during flight is only one aspect of the problem. The full lifecycle impacts of any fuel or energy source used to power an aircraft also needs to be considered. So too is the impact of manufacturing and replacing batteries for electric aircraft.

Aviation, by nature, releases emissions high up in the atmosphere – including non-CO2 emissions, which are believed to contribute up to twice the climate warming impact of CO2. The report examines how new technologies could impact these other emissions and the key uncertainties that must be resolved to understand the full climate impact of the adoption of these new technologies.

The potential of hydrogen-powered aviation

Total climate impact of conventional and alternative propulsion technologies in the aviation sector. (Image: Aviation Impact Accelerator / WEF)

The report, produced in conjunction with the University of Cambridge’s Aviation Impact Accelerator, is the first comprehensive attempt to understand the full climate impact of adopting alternative propulsion technologies would be. By documenting the opportunities, challenges and uncertainties surrounding these new technologies provides decision-makers with information on what must be done to realise the potential battery and hydrogen-powered aviation can have in fighting climate change.

“In 2021, the aviation industry unanimously committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – a collective target that is more ambitious than any previous target.”

Glenn Llewellyn, Vice President, Zero-Emission Aircraft, Airbus

Eight key technological unlocks have been identified which will enable the technology to be adopted in aviation:

Technological unlocks that will contribute to reaching true zero flight in aviation. (Image: Aviation Impact Accelerator / WEF)

Realizing these unlocks will not be easy, and it will require sustained commitment from industry stakeholders. However, as His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales acknowledges in his foreword to the report, “The current ‘business as usual’ position for sectors like aviation is increasingly understood to be unsustainable and untenable, but, at the same time, we are seeing an explosion of new thinking, new ideas and approaches that can allow us to reinvent that status quo”.

Views of Aviation Industry on Alternative Propulsion

The Target True Zero coalition currently consists of 40 companies throughout the aerospace, aviation and adjacent sectors. Below are thoughts from a variety of leaders in the field of alternative propulsion about how their organisations view the potential of these new technologies and how Target True Zero can help realize this potential.

David Morgan, Chief Operating Officer, easyJet

At easyJet, we aim to reduce the environmental impact of our flights in two ways. We’re working tirelessly to minimise carbon emissions today through fleet renewal, efficient operations and our 2050 net zero commitment.

easyJet believes that aviation needs to make radical changes and champion the development of zero emissions aircraft. Decarbonized aviation is a key focus area for easyJet. For short-haul airlines, like easyJet, hydrogen appears to be the best solution to decarbonise. It has considerably more energy density than batteries, produces zero carbon emissions, and has the potential to significantly reduce or even eliminate non-CO2 effects.

The adoption of alternative propulsion technologies will help reduce the climate impact of our operations while preserving the immense social and economic benefits that aviation brings to the world. We will continue to work with the World Economic Forum’s Target True Zero initiative and our partners, including Airbus, Rolls-Royce, GKN Aerospace and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, to explore the opportunities presented by hydrogen in aviation.

“At easyJet we’re working tirelessly to minimise carbon emissions today through fleet renewal, efficient operations and our 2050 net zero commitment.”

David Morgan, Chief Operating Officer, easyJet

JoeBen Bevirt, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Joby Aviation

Air travel is our fastest, safest, and lowest cost mode of transport. Passenger kilometres flown have roughly doubled each decade for the past 50 years. Unfortunately, this freedom of movement comes with a cost. Burning fuel in the upper atmosphere continues to have severe consequences on the climate.

The development time of a new aircraft is roughly a decade, and most aircraft models are typically produced over a few decades and then operated for a few decades more. That means an aircraft entering development today will likely still be operational in 2050.

Truly sustainable aviation requires moving from combustion engines to electric and hydrogen-electric propulsion. Developing and commercialising these climate-neutral aircraft is our mission at Joby. Bold action across our business is imperative to minimise our impact on the planet. Today, all our major facilities are 100% renewable energy reliant, and we intend to source renewable energy for our commercial aircraft operations. We are thoughtful in the design of our aircraft and battery systems, looking to maximise their lifetime and minimise the lifecycle carbon footprint of each flight. We will continue to evaluate our environmental footprint as we grow and will take action to reduce it wherever we can.

Transforming aviation is going to be extremely difficult and will take decades. This must be done, though, and it must be done efficiently and effectively.

Val Miftakhov, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, ZeroAvia

Target True Zero and its work to understand how we can use battery and hydrogen-powered flight to mitigate the climate impact of aviation is incredibly important for the future of the sector.

The challenges in scaling sustainable aviation fuels over time and the need to focus on the full breadth of climate forcing aviation emissions mean we need to look at new solutions. This year has seen a flurry of movement in clean aviation technology, and this report will further our understanding about how these can be effectively used for maximum impact.

We believe hydrogen fuel cell aircraft are the best option for balancing the environmental benefits electrification and hydrogen fuels can deliver with practicalities of designing an aircraft that meets the needs for air travel. We support Target True Zero’s findings that technology like ours will allow an aircraft with a range of up to 2,000 km by 2030 (London to Athens) and 4,000 km by 2035 (New York to San Francisco), and our technology development will help make this happen. These will be key accomplishments in the pursuit of net zero.

ZeroAvia has taken significant steps in lightweight fuel cell systems that will enable these advances and We are pursuing partnerships like those with novel airframe innovator Otto Aviation to optimise aircraft design for hydrogen performance which Target True Zero’s work has shown is going to be essential for realizing the benefits these new technologies can – and must – deliver.

David Morgan, Chief Operational Integrity and Safety Officer, Chief Pilot, Air New Zealand

Reaching net zero will not be possible without the introduction of zero emissions aircraft into our fleet. We’ve been running our own zero emissions aircraft project since 2018 and the Unlocking Sustainable Battery and Hydrogen Powered Flight report will further our understanding of our ambitions to fly alternative propulsion aircraft.

By 2050, we see alternative propulsion aircraft providing not only a low carbon replacement for our domestic and short haul international fleet but offering new economic opportunities.

Pursuing net zero won’t happen overnight, and it can’t be accomplished alone. It requires partnerships among different stakeholders in and beyond aviation. We must come together and drive real change to ensure a sustainable future for the aviation industry.

“By 2050, we see alternative propulsion aircraft providing not only a low carbon replacement for our domestic and short haul international fleet but offering new economic opportunities.”

David Morgan, Chief Operational Integrity and Safety Officer, Chief Pilot, Air New Zealand

Glenn Llewellyn, Vice President, Zero-Emission Aircraft, Airbus

These are exciting times for the aviation industry. Innovative technologies are sure to lead to significant reductions in aircraft emissions over the next decade.

These technological advances could not come sooner. In 2021, our industry unanimously committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – a collective target that is more ambitious than any previous target. A basket of decarbonisation measures will be needed to achieve this, including fleet renewal, improved air traffic management, sustainable aviation fuel and alternative hydrogen propulsion.

Airbus sees alternative hydrogen propulsion as an important technology to achieve our ambition of bringing zero emission commercial aircraft to the market by 2035.

It is often said there is no silver-bullet solution to climate change. While this is true, alternative hydrogen propulsion will put us on the right track to net zero aviation. At Airbus, we look forward to working with the World Economic Forum’s Target True Zero initiative and our partners in pursuit of decarbonised air travel.

This article was reprinted with permission of the World Economic Forum, where it was originally published.

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