Hydrogen in the Aviation Industry: Airbus’s foray into green technology.

Airbus, a leader in the aviation industry, have recently announced a partnership with French hydrogen specialists Safron, and General Electric (GE), the US energy conglomerate. Hydrogen-based energy has taken the spotlight in the decarbonisation of air transport, and Airbus have begun to initiate a ‘green transformation’. This has been caused by increasingly stringent emissions regulations, and airlines are struggling to keep up with these tougher targets. The global aviation industry produces around 3.5% of all human-created carbon dioxide emissions, and comprises 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources. The shift to renewable fuels is not just a result of external pressure: 23.7% of airline operating costs were spent on fuel in 2019. This proportion is only likely to increase with rising oil prices.

In January 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first greenhouse gas emissions standards for aircraft in the United States. The rule explicitly adopts the carbon dioxide emissions standards set in 2017 by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requiring a 4% reduction in aviation fuel consumption by 2028. The ICAO is the United Nations’ aviation authority that acts as a global forum for developing and adopting international aviation standards. Many forms of renewable energy have been proposed to reduce overall emissions, and  hydrogen is seen as the most feasible with the lowest cost and highest specific heat capacity, and thus most efficient.

Hydrogen is currently the most desirable energy source in terms of minimisation of the emission of harmful gases and condensation trails. Hydrogen powered aircraft emit zero CO2 emissions according to a study released by the Clean Sky 2 and Fuel Cells & Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertakings. It was also found that hydrogen powered aircraft demonstrated a 30-50% reduction in impacts from condensation trail and cirrus formation when compared to kerosene aircraft. Taking into account these statistics, it has been estimated that hydrogen combustion could reduce climate impact in the aviation industry by 50-75%, and with fuel-cell technology by 75-90%.

The two main ways hydrogen that can be used for propulsion is through hydrogen-powered electrical fuel cells or with hydrogen-based jet engines. A combination of both hybrid of hydrogen turbines and fuel cells can also be implemented. Airbus is aiming to provide carbon-zero flight by using hydrogen powered jet engines which do produce the harmful gas Nitrous Oxide (NOx). Initially the project will be trialed on a modified A380, keeping its original 4 engines and adding a singular hydrogen powered jet engine. The plans include four tanks containing 400kg of liquid hydrogen stored at minus 253oC. This has led to Airbus’s development of a new cryogenic distribution system, allowing for inflight movement of hydrogen at extreme temperatures. The hydrogen will also need to be converted into a gas before it is burnt. The gas burns at a much higher temperature than conventional jet fuel, so special cooling and coating materials will also need to be developed. These complications make this project very expensive for Airbus to undertake and represent a significant investment from the company into the future of air travel.

Boeing, Airbus’s largest competitor, are not yet developing hydrogen fuel alternatives. Instead, they have recently purchased 2 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from Epic Fuels which can reduce emissions up to 80% across their production and use. This represents the largest SAF procurement by an aircraft manufacturer. Boeing have described this purchase as a further demonstration of the manufacturers commitment to the long term decarbonization of the airline industry. Furthermore, Boeing aim to make each newly developed Boeing aircraft 15% to 25% more fuel efficient than the model it replaces. The company also states on its website that it aims for 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Airbus, however, is targeting net-zero by 2050 with a focus on a bringing the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035. Meanwhile, Boeing solely states that it aims to ‘reduce companywide greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 in our operations’.

Airbus’s recent commitment and investment into hydrogen power demonstrates a tangible effort to reduce carbon within the aviation industry. Airbus has concrete plans and targets in-line with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ideologies, this will aid Airbus’s ESG rating and thus investment into the company. A lack of foresight by Boeing, focusing instead on SAF as opposed to more fundamental and environmentally significant changes shows how the aviation industry is dividing. Only time will tell how internal investment decisions made by these companies will affect their futures, and undoubtedly the next 15 years will involve massive changes in the transport and aviation industry.

Analyst: Louis Christie

Sector Head: Phillip Jiang

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