Zero emission ambitions: aircraft of the future and the decarbonisation of the aviation industry

17 March, 2021

Airbus last year revealed three concepts for the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft which could enter service by 2035. These concepts each represent a different approach to achieving zero-emission flight, exploring various technology pathways and aerodynamic configurations in order to support the company’s ambition of leading the way in the decarbonisation of the entire aviation industry.

All of these concepts rely on hydrogen as a primary power source – an option which Airbus believes holds exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel and is likely to be a solution for aerospace and many other industries to meet their climate-neutral targets.

There are three concepts for a first climate neutral zero-emission commercial aircraft, all codenamed “ZEROe”.

The first is a turbofan design to carry between 120 and 200 passengers with a range of 2,000+ nautical miles, capable of operating transcontinentally and powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen, rather than jet fuel, through combustion. The liquid hydrogen will be stored and distributed via tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead, according to Airbus.

The second is a turboprop design for seating up to 100 passengers using a turboprop engine instead of a turbofan and also powered by hydrogen combustion in modified gas-turbine engines, which would be capable of traveling more than 1,000 nautical miles, making it a perfect option, according to Airbus, for short-haul trips.

The third and most radical is a blended-wing body designed to carry up to 200 passengers in which the wings merge with the main body of the aircraft with a range similar to that of the turbofan concept. The exceptionally wide fuselage opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution, and for cabin layout, says Airbus.

Together these concepts will be used by Airbus to explore and mature the design and layout of one of the world’s first climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft, which it hopes to put into service by 2035.

Speaking at the Mar-2021 edition of CAPA Live – a monthly virtual summit, offering insights, information, data and live interviews with airline CEOs and industry executives across a next-gen virtual event platform – Airbus VP zero emission aircraft Glenn Llewellyn provided some insights into the project.

"We believe [hydrogen] can be extremely cost competitive. We believe it can have the best climate credentials compared to all other kinds of fuel types for aviation, and it's why we're specifically interested in hydrogen".

It appears that Hydrogen is going to play a major role, not just in aviation, but across several sectors in allowing us to meet the promises of the Paris Agreement, an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance, signed in 2016.

"There are nine truck companies now who have either revealed hydrogen truck concepts, or, in fact, have hydrogen trucks on the road today. We have the train industry looking at hydrogen to replace diesel trains where it's not cost-effective to put electric lines overhead. We have the shipping industry looking at hydrogen for intracontinental, so the shorter distance shipping, not necessarily for the deep sea shipping. Fuel cell buses are starting, already, to operate across several regions," he said.

He added: "This is hugely important for aviation because if it was just aviation that was pushing the hydrogen ecosystem to exist, it might not happen. But because we have a momentum from several industries pushing all in the same direction for a hydrogen ecosystem to exist, I think we are gaining confidence in the fact that hydrogen will be more available, and the cost will come down".

Airbus is not just interested in making something fly. “That's relatively easy," acknowledged Mr Llewellyn. He explained: "What we are interested in is making climate neutral aviation economically viable. And so that's what we're focused on. And that means that we need to consider the aircraft, the technologies, but also the energy and the ecosystem all the way up to getting green hydrogen at airports".

There will be notable challenges though, none more so than airports requiring significant hydrogen transport and refuelling infrastructure to meet the needs of day-to-day operations. Airbus believes that support from governments will be key to meet these ambitious objectives with increased funding for research & technology, digitalisation, and mechanisms that encourage the use of sustainable fuels and the renewal of aircraft fleets to allow airlines to retire older, less environmentally friendly aircraft earlier.

You can learn more about the “ZEROe” plans and the Airbus journey to develop zero-emission aircraft in Glenn Llewellyn’s CAPA Live presentation.

CAPA Live is the most sought-after monthly global aviation event. Taking place on the second Wednesday of each month, thousands of industry colleagues from across the globe tune in for their monthly dose of aviation and travel news, analysis, and in-depth interviews with industry leaders. You can access the latest agenda and register to be part of its growing community to access the latest edition and archive content at: CAPA Live