The Potential Impact of Hydrogen as Aviation Fuel

Aviation is a major contributor to carbon emissions, and airports around the world are under pressure to find alternatives to traditional jet fuel. In the UK, the government’s Jet Zero plan aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040 in the aviation industry. Similarly, the US aviation industry plans to reach net zero by 2050, and the European Union has set a similar goal. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which does not come from fossil fuels, is one option that airlines are already using. However, there are doubts about the availability and cost of producing SAF in large quantities. As a result, hydrogen is being considered as a potential fuel for aviation, as it stores a significant amount of energy and produces no CO2 when used as fuel.

Hydrogen in its liquid form, known as cryogenic hydrogen, is necessary for it to be useful in the aviation industry. However, handling liquid hydrogen at extremely low temperatures (-253C) presents significant challenges. If not properly insulated, liquid hydrogen can “boil-off” and escape as a gas, which poses safety hazards. Companies like Air Liquide, which has experience supplying cryogenic hydrogen to the European Space Agency, are exploring the potential of using hydrogen in aviation. Air Liquide, in partnership with Airbus and France’s biggest airport operator, Group ADP, has been investigating hydrogen’s applicability in the aviation business. They have tested refuelling systems and successfully flew an aircraft using liquid hydrogen as part of the H2Fly consortium.

While hydrogen has the potential to be a game-changer for aviation, there are significant hurdles to overcome. The equipment required for storing and distributing hydrogen at airports will be expensive. It is estimated that it could cost as much as a billion dollars per airport. Universal Hydrogen, a start-up, offers an alternative solution by handling the storage and distribution of hydrogen away from the airport. They have developed special tanks, or modules, to hold liquid hydrogen, which can be trucked to the airport and directly plugged into the aircraft’s propulsion system, eliminating the need for pipes and pumps.

However, there are still uncertainties surrounding the mainstream adoption of hydrogen as aviation fuel. Aircraft powered by hydrogen are still in the early stages of development, and storing hydrogen in the fuselage instead of the wings reduces space for passengers. Additionally, the availability and production of environmentally-friendly, green hydrogen at scale are crucial to meet demand.

The aviation industry acknowledges the need to achieve net zero carbon emissions, but the path to reaching this goal is unclear. While demo flights using hydrogen-fuelled aircraft may occur in the next decade, widespread implementation seems to be farther away and uncertain. The viability of hydrogen as aviation fuel depends on overcoming technological and economic challenges, as well as ensuring the availability of green hydrogen.