As Airbus builds out its zero-emission aviation industry of the future, it's going to be relying on Hydrogen gas to make it fly.
That's the word from Glenn Llewellyn, the Vice President of Zero Emission Aviation at Airbus. Speaking at the MIT Energy Conference, Llewellyn detailed how he's thinking about the ways in which the world will fly the friendly skies in the not-too-distant future. And his vision is an aviation business whose impact on the environment is as small as possible.
"We recognize that we need to start now and we need to treat our mission with urgency if we’re going to be really addressing the demands of society in those timeframes," Llewellyn said of the airline industry's transition. "In the 2030s and 2040s there will be only tolerance for zero climate impact aviation and that’s what we’re extremely focused on."
For Llewellyn limiting the climate impact of flying depends on the construction of a green hydrogen economy.
While biomass is interesting, Llewellyn posited that there would not be enough available to meet the entire industry's needs.
"At some point we will reach a limit in terms of the scalability of biomass based aviation fuels," he said. "This is why we see a need to accelerate the production of low carbon synthetic fuels."
To Llewellyn, the way forward is through a combination of captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen -- or hydrogen alone -- to meet the demands of the largest aircrafts. Already aircraft can use up to 50% blend of sustainable synthetic and sustainable aviation fuels -- and that will rise to 100% in the next decades. Llewellyn said that there are products on the market that can send a signal to the energy sector that can already work. So regulators and the energy sector should put frameworks in place to adopt those fuels.
"Direct Air Carbon Capture is really important to first of all sequester CO2… mineralize it underground and essentially make it a part of the geography," said Llewellyn. "We need Direct Air Carbon Capture to come down in cost before it can start creating synthetic fuel hydrocarbons. [And] synthetic fuel is also produced using hydrogen… Hydrogen in its raw form can be economically viable and also because there is some potential -- still to be proven -- in terms of getting to zero climate impact and zero carbon emissions, which is the Airbus goal."
Llewellyn also poured cold water on the notion of a radical new design for hydrogen powered aircraft. While the propulsion systems and the gas tanks for the planes would be different, the tube and wing design that have been the standard for decades likely won't change. So fans of the Flying V shaped aircraft that Airbus debuted is probably just a concept only.
Hydrogen combustion systems may be combined replacing batteries with fuel cells in a hybrid system. Some companies are already approaching this model. For instance, ZeroAvia has raised tens of millions of dollars from Alaska Air Group and United Airlines -- along with venture capital investors -- to make hybrid fuel cell and hydrogen powered vehicles.
Part of the adoption efforts that Airbus is undertaking is to drive hydrogen adoption at airport facilities in the 2020s. They're looking to lay the groundwork for available, green hydrogen at locations, so that when hydrogen aircraft are ready for takeoff in the 2030 to 2040 timeframe. Airbus has been working with the Paris airport and French chemical company Air Liquide to figure out whether hydrogen can even work.
"The footprint is only a little bit bigger than kerosene in terms of storage at these facilities" Llewellyn said.
Hydrogen also poses a very big opportunity in developing economies, Llewellyn said. Many developing countries are interesting places to produce hydrogen and it's an interesting opportunity for those places to be exporters of renewable energy in the future. "It's important that we collaborate in the right ways with those countries [and] that the regulation in developed countries is encouraging the uptake of these renewable energies and a global uptake of demand.
There's tight timeline to make this happen, according to the Airbus executive.
"Our ambition is to bring a zero emission aircraft into service by 2025," said Llewellyn. "There's going to be tens of aircraft at the beginning, switching to hundreds and thousands of aircraft. It's going to be a gradual shift it's not going to be an overnight shift."