While Covid-19 has brought international air travel to a near halt, Airbus is not grounding its ambition of making the world’s first non-polluting commercial passenger plane a reality by 2035, its top Asia executive said on Tuesday, with the European planemaker betting on hydrogen to make flying cleaner.
The company’s aggressive timeline remained in place, Airbus Asia-Pacific president Anand Stanley told a media briefing, adding their plans could be realised in a “very short time frame” if supported by governments, regulators and the industry – despite facing the worst crisis in commercial aviation history.
A day earlier, Airbus had unveiled its planned “zero emission” aircraft, which included turbofan, turboprop and blended-wing jets, planes it said could help the industry meet tough Paris Climate Accord targets by 2050 if successful.
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“Covid adaptation measures have not changed the ambitions, or vision, of Airbus to put a zero-emission aircraft in the air by the mid-2030s,” Stanley said at the Tuesday briefing.
“Given that the time frame is so short, despite the Covid crisis, we at Airbus believe we have to continue to progress with the concepts, the projects and even come up with demonstrators in a matter of months, not years.”
On paper, the hydrogen-fuelled jets are projected to carry up to 200 passengers 3,700 kilometres, enough range to fly from Hong Kong to Singapore, parts of Japan and the bulk of the Chinese mainland when factoring in real-life flying conditions and operational requirements. Conventional equivalent short-haul aircraft fly about one-third further.
But Stanley conceded Airbus had a challenge in meeting very tough safety standards, particularly in incorporating both new designs and a fuel mix that has never been used.
Steve Saxon, a McKinsey partner based in China who leads the group’s airline work in Asia, said hydrogen-powered planes could be a game changer for an industry powered by fossil fuels for the past 100 years.
“Not only for Co2 emission reduction, but also from a technical perspective, this is a significant leap forward,” Saxon said. “Efficiency gains from conventional technology are almost maxed out and further improvement requires fundamental change. Introducing hydrogen is a sea change, not only
for aircraft technology but also the entire aviation ecosystem.”
McKinsey, which produced a report in May on hydrogen-powered aviation for the European Union, said 100 per cent reduction of carbon dioxide emission could be achieved only if hydrogen was sourced from renewable energy.
Today’s aircraft also emit – in addition to carbon dioxide – nitrogen oxide, water vapour and contrails, the cloudlike lines formed by engine exhaust in a plane’s wake.
To power planes, hydrogen could be used in fuel cells to produce electricity to power the motors of smaller jets – something reflected in the design features of Airbus’ new aircraft – or burned directly in the turbines of larger planes.
Airbus said hydrogen “ticked all the boxes”, as it was safe, versatile, lightweight, storable as either a gas or a liquid and had an energy intensity three times better than current jet fuel. But the fuel type is not widely produced and has yet to be shown to work in an aircraft engine.
Aviation is responsible for about 2.4 per cent of global CO2 emissions, and before Covid-19, that figure looked set to grow right alongside an expanding appetite for air travel globally.
However, airlines are adopting tough emissions-cutting targets by 2050, with plans to halve emissions from 2005 levels. Companies including Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Qantas Group have pledged to go even further, targeting net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the next century.
There are still scores of hurdles for Airbus to overcome, not least the short 15-year window it has given itself. The company said it would start testing so-called demonstrators by next year, with an eye towards making a product launch decision by the middle of the decade.
“In the long run, regardless of whichever energy source becomes most prevalent, significant changes to the global and Asian commercial aviation ecosystem will be required, including the development of new safety and regulatory frameworks,” said Bradley Dailey, director at Alton Aviation Consultancy in Hong Kong.
“Commercial aircraft powered by alternative energy will likely become prevalent in the long run, [but] for the foreseeable future, jet fuel will be the primary energy source for commercial aircraft.”