Taking Flight With Hydrogen

The aviation industry is largely resolving to move towards a low carbon economy by 2050. Part of the plan relies on using hydrogen as an alternative.

Hydrogen flight
Image via CanvaPro

By 2019, global CO2 emissions from commercial aviation reached over 900 million metric tonnes. During the coronavirus pandemic though, when the aviation industry ground to a halt, emissions fell to around 495 million metric tonnes. By 2022, this was back up to over 600 million metric tonnes. It is a significant rise and one can expect it to keep growing.

As countries, governments and industries join forces to advance decarbonization strategies for our earth, the battle extends to the skies as well. The aviation industry is largely resolving to move towards a low carbon economy by 2050. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) for instance, aims to deploy several decarbonization strategies like transitioning to sustainable aviation fuel, building on carbon capture technology and increasing infrastructural and operational efficiencies to reach its goal of net-zero by 2050. A sizeable portion of this plan is to invest in innovative technologies and investigate possibilities with electric and hydrogen.

A growing number of businesses are betting on a low-carbon future and looking to scale the existing hydrogen economy to meet diverse industrial needs. In this context, a safe quality infrastructure is paramount. This is where IECEx, with several years of experience with the flammable gas, can be instrumental in ensuring a robust safety infrastructure.

When can we expect the next hydrogen aircraft?

Airbus, an industry giant, considers hydrogen to be an important technology pathway leading to their plans of introducing a low-carbon commercial aircraft to market by 2035. In fact, in February 2024, Airbus reported progress on their research with hydrogen technologies in collaboration with  the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and Changi Airport. The press release noted their dedication in pursuing hydrogen aircraft technology toward maturity, culminating in the launch of ZEROe in 2027, which aspires to be the world’s first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft. Airbus and the ArianeGroup are also aiming towards building the first liquid hydrogen refuelling facility for ZEROe aircraft in France by 2025. 

2024 also saw MEHAIR (Maritime Energy Heli Air Services), a premier seaplane company in India partnering up with Sirius, the Swiss hydrogen VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) manufacturer to establish hydrogen jet assembly lines in India, while also working on expanding the green-hydrogen infrastructure. This sets the stage for others to follow. For example India, recognizing hydrogen’s potential as a key enabler of clean energy in hard-to-abate industries, has set a target of producing 5 million metric tonnes of hydrogen per annum by 2030. The Sirius jets hope to debut by 2025.

MEHAIR has also pre-ordered up to 20 hydrogen-electric engines from ZeroAvia, a UK-based company focussed on building the world’s first zero-emission engines for commercial aviation.

How can hydrogen help decarbonize aviation?

Multiple countries are finding hydrogen an achievable option in their decarbonization strategy. Hydrogen has a much higher energy per unit mass ratio than traditional jet fuel. Potentially clean hydrogen generated with renewable energy sources would be an ideal alternative as it would not involve any carbon emissions. Even hydrogen that involves carbon emissions in production and storage would still cut down the emissions during its combustion to produce energy.

In the aviation sector, hydrogen can play a role on two fronts: it can be used to reduce emissions in the air and be incorporated as an alternative to decarbonize airside ground activities.

By Airbus’s estimates, hydrogen can potentially reduce aviation’s carbon emissions by up to 50%. Sabine Klauke, Chief Technology Officer of Airbus, shared, “Together with our partners, we recognise the potential of hydrogen becoming a longer-term decarbonisation pathway for aircraft operations, complementing sustainable aviation fuel, in support of our transition towards net zero by 2050”.

Are we cleared for take-off yet?

For its commercial aircraft, Airbus can use a hybrid-electric propulsion system powered entirely by hydrogen or use it to create synthetic e-fuels that can power the airplane.

But it would take considerable time to see which one of these avenues are more feasible and which technology is market-ready by the proposed dates for launch.

In general, there are infrastructural challenges with switching to hydrogen as a fuel. Although its energy per unit mass is high, it occupies a large volume. The practical implication is that it requires more storage space. In a commercial flight, provisions will have to be made to have fuel tanks suitable to contain hydrogen, and space to accommodate sufficient gas to fuel short flight distances.

To supply a working commercial flight, the infrastructure around a sufficient hydrogen supply and operations at the airport will need to be developed. Even if certain airport authorities collaborate with flight carriers to aid developments to meet flight safety requirements, initially, travel would be limited to places which are also sufficiently equipped to support a hydrogen-fuelled aircraft ecosystem.

Furthermore, getting the whole setup ready and the relative price of hydrogen as a fuel in comparison to traditional fuels can be quite cost-intensive.

IECEx for a safe market

Despite its challenges, hydrogen remains a promising strategy to progress upon the road towards decarbonization. As research and technological innovation progresses, standards and testing and certification to comply with government policies will be needed to pave the way for effective commercialization.

IECEx has been helping facilitate quality infrastructure for hydrogen for decades. IECEx oversees compliance with international standards that address hydrogen safety, and its certification continues to be a valuable tool for facilitating hydrogen-related trade at national levels and across international markets.

As hydrogen continues to become a more feasible fuel alternative, IECEx too is expanding its scope relating to testing and certification in the area of hydrogen technologies. IECEx has partnered with many other international organizations, including ISO. In an on-going close collaboration with IRENA as well as the Hydrogen Council, IECEx is contributing to develop a future roadmap for quality infrastructure for clean hydrogen production.

In a low-carbon economy fuelled by hydrogen, IECEx and its collaborating global organizations will have a vital role to play in carefully navigating the challenges of clean hydrogen production in the future.

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