Airbus' Game Plan For Hydrogen Airliners Includes Fuel Cell Development

Airbus' Game Plan For Hydrogen Airliners Includes Fuel Cell Development
Courtesy by Electric Drive

As part of Airbus' studies into a zero-emission aircraft scheduled for service entry by 2035, the company is accelerating development of a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine. During the Sustainability Summit held on November 30 in Toulouse, France, the European aerospace group company revealed its plans.

Airbus announced a partnership with Ariane to build a hydrogen refueling station in Toulouse by 2025 as part of its preparations for hydrogen-powered air transport. Toulouse-Blagnac Airport will have a hydrogen production, storage, and distribution facility in 2023 after working with green hydrogen specialist HyPort.

In the middle of this decade, Airbus will start testing its hydrogen-powered ZeroE demonstrator aircraft with fuel cell engines. Hydrogen tanks and their associated distribution systems are now being added to the A380 MSN1 flight test aircraft for new hydrogen technologies.

"Our zero-emission ambition can be achieved with fuel cells, and we are focusing on developing and testing this technology to determine whether it is feasible and viable to introduce a zero-emission aircraft in 2035,” Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus vice president for zero-emission aircraft, said.

In the event that the technology targets are met, a fuel cell engine could power a 100-passenger aircraft with an approximate 1,000 nautical mile range. We will be able to make informed decisions about the architecture of our future ZeroE aircraft, which we intend to launch in 2027-2028, as a result of our continued investment in this technology."

As a renewable energy source, hydrogen emits no carbon dioxide when used to power a zero-emission aircraft. A technology demonstrator will be ready to fly in 2025, leading to a full program launch in 2027 and entry into service in 2035, according to the company's announcement of Zero E in September 2020. The project was supported by a collaboration agreement signed by Delta Air Lines earlier this year.

There are three hydrogen airliner concepts in competition

In 2020, Airbus unveiled a blended wing airframe that can carry up to 200 passengers on flights of around 2,300 miles. In addition to providing space for a cabin, the fuselage, which merges the wing with the main section of the aircraft, will also store and distribute hydrogen. According to Llewellyn's presentation this week, the blended wing concept is the least likely to be selected.

In addition, Airbus is developing a narrowbody model that would carry 120 to 200 passengers on segments of around 2,300 miles. Liquid hydrogen would be stored and distributed via tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead as fuel for the gas turbine engines. Outer wing surfaces are swept back.

Thirdly, there is a 100-seat twin turboprop design. As with the A380, it would be powered by modified gas turbines fueled by hydrogen and would have a range of around 1,000 nautical miles, according to Airbus.

According to Llewellyn, hydrogen can be used as a propulsion source for aircraft in two primary ways. A gas turbine burns hydrogen to generate electricity, while fuel cells are used to convert hydrogen into electricity to power propeller engines. Fuel cells can also be used instead of batteries in a hybrid-electric architecture to power hydrogen gas turbines. Both potential applications are still being explored by Airbus.

Since some time, Airbus has explored the possibilities of fuel-cell propulsion systems for aviation. Airbus created Aerostack in October 2020, a joint venture with ElringKlinger, a fuel cell systems and component supplier with more than 20 years' experience. A pod concept that includes six fuel cell propellers was presented by Airbus in December 2020.

HyPort and Ariane Are Fuel Supply Partners

A joint venture between Engie Solutions and the Regional Agency for Energy and Climate in Occitanie, HyPort is headquartered in France. In 2020, Airbus announced its Hydrogen Hubs for Airports initiative, which is designed to establish hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

France's HyPort is working with Airbus to develop hydrogen fueling infrastructure that will initially be used for ground vehicles at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.

At Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, the facility will initially produce around 400 kg of hydrogen per day, which will power around 50 ground transportation vehicles. HyPort's involvement demonstrates Airbus's progress in securing tomorrow's energy systems, said Karine Guenan, vice president for ZeroE Ecosystem at Airbus. By 2035, hydrogen will be available for zero-emission aircraft by decarbonizing all airport-associated ground transport.

Alongside this project, Airbus and Safran's ArianeGroup will design, manufacture and support a liquid hydrogen fueling system specifically for the ZeroE demonstrator during the ground and flight tests. Fuel for the propulsion systems of Ariane rockets has been the company's specialty for more than 40 years.

The ArianeGroup is developing a liquid hydrogen refueling system for Airbus' zero emissions test program.

"Many of the technologies required for a zero-emission aircraft are already available in other sectors," said Sabine Klauke, chief technical officer of Airbus. We must mature all of the required technologies simultaneously in order to prepare for zero-emission aircraft service in 2035.

French Carmaker Joins Airbus Electrification Team

During the Sustainability Summit, Renault and Airbus signed a research and development agreement to improve their electrification roadmaps through advances in battery technology. In this collaboration, Airbus will develop technologies associated with hybrid-electric aircraft by utilizing technology bricks related to energy management and battery weight. According to the agreement, studies will be conducted on the best ways to move from lithium-ion to solid-state batteries by 2030, which will double energy density.

Additionally, the joint work will assess the full lifecycle of future batteries, from production to recyclability, to enable industrialization of future designs while reducing their carbon footprints.

Airbus' chief technical officer Sabine Klauke said the cross-industry partnership would help develop the next generation of batteries. It will take cooperation across sectors to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Renault Group's expertise in electric vehicles and our own experience with electric flight demonstrators will enable us to accelerate the development of the disruptive technologies required for future hybrid aircraft architectures in the 2030s and beyond.”

A new partnership between Airbus and Renault will support battery applications for both cars and aircraft.

Klauke also explained that the partnership will foster the emergence of common technical and regulatory standards to help meet the industry’s climate targets.

“For the first time, two European leaders from different industries are sharing engineering knowledge to shape the future of hybrid-electric aircraft,” added Renault Group vice president of engineering Gilles Le Borgne. “Aviation is an extremely demanding field in terms of both safety and energy consumption, and so is the car industry. At Renault Group, our 10 years of experience in the electric vehicle value chain gives us some of the strongest feedback from the field and expertise in the performance of battery management systems. Driven by the same ambition to innovate and reduce the carbon footprint, our engineering teams are exchanging with those of Airbus to converge transversal technologies that will enable both hybrid aircraft to be operated and the vehicles of tomorrow to be developed.”

Developers of new electric aircraft, such as the eVTOL design intended for urban air taxi services, are increasingly turning to the automotive sector for help with battery technology. Companies including are investing in the sector.

On November 29, Airbus joined four other major aerospace groups in announcing plans to develop a new hybrid-electric propulsion system that could reduce fuel burn and emissions for narrowbody airliners.

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