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UK bets on green hydrogen for zero-carbon commercial aviation

As much as we need to reduce aviation emissions, batteries are not the answer. Replacing a turbine-powered airliner with a similarly sized electric aircraft would require a giant leap in battery technology — and we’re not there yet.

So how can we make aviation sustainable?

According to research by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), the aviation industry can achieve its 2050 net-zero emissions target by developing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and green liquid hydrogen technologies.

They also emphasize that green liquid hydrogen is the best fuel for the first generation of zero-emission aircraft.

According to ATI, targeted technology investment could help the UK develop its market share for civil aerospace to 19% by 2050, up from 12% today. This will increase the sector’s gross economic value added from £11bn to £36bn – and the number of aerospace jobs from 116,000 to 154,000.

Correspondingly, the UK has gradually increased its efforts in the field of hydrogen energy over the past few years.

In March 2021, British Airways invested in ZeroAvia, a British-American hydrogen-electric aircraft developer, to accelerate the development of hydrogen-powered aircraft.

ZeroAvia ZeroAvia expects first commercial run between London and Rotterdam in 2024 Hydrogen flight. Image credit: ZeroAvia

A few months later, the government-backed FlyZero program unveiled a liquid hydrogen-powered aircraft concept capable of carrying 279 Passengers fly nonstop to Sao Paulo, San Francisco, or one stop to Oakland

Rolls Royce easyjet hydrogen
FlyZero’s concept aircraft. Image credit: Institute of Aerospace Technology

In early 2022, British start-up EAG announced the creation of a hydrogen storage system, a Spin – the company that aims to develop and commercialize hydrogen storage solutions – is one of the biggest challenges facing the technology.

The spin-off will assist EAG in developing the world’s first “true zero” (ie, targeting zero carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions) 90-seat hydrogen-hybrid regional aircraft – the H2ERA.

Rolls Royce easyjet hydrogen H2HERA by EAG. Image credit: EAG

Big players in the mobile industry are also betting on the technology, suggesting the industry is gaining traction.

Rolls-Royce and easyJet have formed a multi-million pound partnership as part of their decarbonization strategy to demonstrate that hydrogen could be the zero-carbon aviation fuel of the future .

On Monday, the two companies released the results of their first ground tests of an early proof-of-concept aircraft, which they claim is the “world’s first” run of a modern hydrogen aero engine.

Rolls Royce easyjet hydrogen Hydrogen-powered engine demonstrator picture source: Rolls Royce pic/Flickr FlyZero hydrogen plane

Testing was conducted at an outdoor facility in the UK using a modified Rolls Royce AE 2100-A Regional Aircraft Engine. The green hydrogen used for testing is produced by wind and tidal energy.

“The success of this hydrogen test is an exciting milestone. We only announced our partnership with easyJet in July,” said Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer, Rolls-Royce , we’re off to an incredible start with this landmark achievement. “

“We are pushing the boundaries to discover the zero-carbon possibilities of hydrogen, which could help reshape the future of flight,” he added. Rolls-Royce Pearl 15 jet engine – designed to Implementation of the technology on an easyJet sized aircraft.

Image credit: Rolls Royce pic/Flickr
FlyZero hydrogen plane

The sound of hydrogen, there are many challenges ahead.

Hydrogen has a lower volumetric energy density compared to conventional fuels. That is, 8 MJ/L compared to gasoline’s 32 MJ/L, which means more energy needs to be stored to deliver the same amount of energy .

Hence, a whole new infrastructure would be required to store and transport it at the airport, which would be a costly venture as it does not yet exist on a large scale.

And, while it is debatable whether hydrogen energy will mark a new dawn for the industry, the urgency to reduce aviation emissions certainly requires technological advances that will help achieve that goal.

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