Airbus unveils hydrogen designs for zero-emission flight

European planemaker Airbus SE unveiled three designs it’s studying to build hydrogen-powered aircraft as it races to bring a zero-carbon passenger plane into service by 2035.

The approaches include a turbofan jet with capacity for as many as 200 passengers – similar to its A321neo narrow-body – that can fly more than 2,000 nautical miles, according to a statement Monday. It would be powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen.

The manufacturer also showed a design for a propeller plane which would seat about 100 passengers for smaller distances, and a flying-wing concept with 200 seats.

Hydrogen is becoming an increasing area of focus for Airbus as it evaluates technologies for emission-free flight. The company is under pressure from the French and German governments, its biggest shareholders, to speed the commercialization of emission-free technology after aiding the planemaker during the coronavirus crisis. Both countries have committed billions to support hydrogen development.

While there are different approaches, hydrogen is likely to be used in aerospace and other industries to meet climate-neutral targets, Airbus said. The company has already said it’s targeting the mid-2030s for the first zero-emission passenger jet. Developing a hydrogen aircraft on that timeline will be a real challenge because of the massive amounts of infrastructure and government investment required.

“I strongly believe that the use of hydrogen – both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft – has the potential to significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact,” chief executive officer Guillaume Faury said in the statement.

In the turbofan design, liquid hydrogen will be stored and distributed through tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead, while while at the same time hydrogen fuel cells will create electric power that complements the gas turbine. The turboprop will also use modified gas-turbine engines.

The blended-wing plan, resembling a flying V, opens up new options for hydrogen storage and distribution, along with cabin layout.

The company, based in Toulouse, France, plans to launch several hydrogen demonstrator programs over the next few months. The company expects it will take another two years to choose suppliers and manufacturing sites before the program is scheduled for around 2028, and the aircraft comes into service in 2035.

The success of any such plane would depend on infrastructure at airports and support from governments to fund the development, as well as incentives for airlines to retire older aircraft, Airbus said.

The French state is backing research into low-carbon flight and sees Airbus’ development of a hydrogen powered plane as the best answer to “aviation bashing,” French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on LCI Television Monday.

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.