It is a star fuel that brings hope that has just arisen in the stricken world of global aeronautics. While the sector is in the grip of serious economic difficulties due to Covid-19 and must face the wave of floating comb – the shame of flying in Swedish – Airbus unveiled three types of commercial aircraft with the code name ZEROe.
According to Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, “This is a historic moment for the entire commercial aviation industry, and we intend to play a leading role in the most significant transition our industry has ever seen. Our vision for a ‘zero emissions’ future for aviation is bold, and the concepts we unveil today give the world a glimpse of our ambition in this area ”.
Although different in their design, the common feature of these three planes is an engine based no longer on the traditional and polluting kerosene, but on hydrogen, “An option that is proving exceptionally promising as a clean aviation fuel”, according to Airbus.
Each of these concepts “Presents a different approach to zero-emission flight, exploring various technological avenues and aerodynamic configurations”. Indeed, if hydrogen has the same performance as kerosene, it has the drawback of being bulkier (by a factor of 4) while being light. Result, a propeller plane flying on hydrogen and carrying around 100 passengers will have a range of 1,850 km, Jean-Brice Dumont, director of engineering at Airbus, told BFM Business. This is comparable to what is done today with regional aircraft operating on kerosene. He also explains that “Equal radius of action, we will have fewer passengers, or with an equal number of passengers, we will perhaps go less far”.
Exit so hydrogen (for now) for long-haul flights. But the latter will not disappear for all that since there are alternative solutions such as biofuels …
The other technical constraint of hydrogen is its storage. It will not be stored in the wings, as is generally done, but in a special tank placed inside the aircraft itself. Indeed, the hydrogen which will be injected into the turbines must be transported in the liquid state, that is to say cryogenic (-250 ° C).
Three planes, three engines, but short distances
In detail, the first concept of a turboprop with propellers will be able to carry up to a hundred passengers over 1,850 km, the tank taking place in the tail.
The second concept is a turbojet engine resembling the A320, a medium-haul launched in 1984, which will be able to carry 120 to 200 passengers over distances of 3,700 km. It will be intended for transcontinental flights.
Finally, more whimsical with its flying wing design, the third aircraft should carry up to 200 passengers for a trip of 3,700 km. In addition to this particular design, the very wide fuselage should offer many possibilities in terms of hydrogen storage and cabin layout.
Obviously, this technological revolution will also be that of airports, which will have to build new transport and hydrogen fueling infrastructure, not to mention that it will be necessary to train qualified personnel for the upkeep and maintenance of aircraft.
But producing a low-carbon aircraft with its appropriate environment cannot be done without the financial support of States, which have now come back to favor. This is the whole Airbus argument, for whom “The development of sustainable fuel technologies and the renewal of aircraft fleets” cannot be done without public funding. Message heard loud and clear: last June, the government announced a 15 billion euro support plan for the aeronautics sector.
If the priority is to restart air traffic as quickly as possible, the French State would like to see greener planes flying by 2035. For this, 1.5 billion euros over three years will be paid to the Council for the civil aeronautical research (Corac) for the rapid development of a low-carbon aircraft.
With news never coming alone, the company Easyjet has announced its intention to acquire hydrogen Airbuses as soon as they enter into service in 2035.