Aviation’s Hydrogen Targets Tied to a Renewables ‘Ecosystem’

 - March 24, 2021, 4:39 PM
Governments must better align their priorities and agree on a long-term plan to create a sustainable energy "ecosystem" across various industries. (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Last year’s commitment by Airbus to introduce a hydrogen-powered airliner by 2035 has met with a host of questions and some skepticism, but not necessarily related to the development of the actual airplane technology. Rather, according to a panel assembled by Eurocontrol on the challenges associated with the conversion to hydrogen power, policymakers’ commitment to global standards for the use and production of the element and the need for a so-called green ecosystem remain the most pressing concerns.

Speaking during one of a series of online Eurocontrol Stakeholder Forums, Ron van Manen, head of strategic development for the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking, characterized the massive need for renewable energy to create hydrogen in an environmentally sustainable way as “the elephant in the room.” Noting that one needs to use hydrogen to make both synthetic fuels and hydrogen itself, van Manen raised what he called the taboo subject of nuclear power as the basis for creating those fuels.

“We often say in aviation, there is no silver bullet toward decarbonizing, but hydrogen does seem to be a golden key,” he said. “With the level of renewable energy that will be required for hydrogen production or, if you permit me to [raise] something that in some circles is considered a taboo, I think the nuclear option is going to be back on the table. But [demand for] non-carbon-producing energy sources on the ground for the creation of hydrogen will grow…Meeting that growth is going to be a challenge.”

In fact, aviation will be a relatively small user of hydrogen power given all the industries that can benefit from its use, which, said Airbus vice president of zero-emissions technology Glenn Llewellyn, stands to create a scale of demand that could lower its cost—a “hugely important” part of making climate-neutral flying a reality.

“We all want to eliminate our climate impact and other industries are, in fact, going to be much bigger users of hydrogen than aviation [will],” said Llewellyn. “It's also going to have an effect in making hydrogen much more ubiquitous.”

Still, the airline industry’s transition to hydrogen will require sorely needed infrastructure at airports to make operating a hydrogen-powered narrowbody airliner in 2035 feasible. “No infrastructure means no aircraft,” added Llewellyn. “I think there's going to be lots of momentum through other sectors’ adoption of hydrogen. The trucking industry is going very fast in that direction.”

Speaking from an airport operator’s perspective, Groupe ADP environment director Amelie Lummaux named four major issues related to ground operations, starting with ensuring compatibility between the airplanes and the airports. Requirements for hydrogen storage, liquefaction supply, and distribution systems all raise challenges related to airport-airplane compatibility. Authorities must put in place regulations to allow for hydrogen manipulation at airports, she added. Finally, airports will need a robust hydrogen supply chain to allow for sufficient production and distribution.

“This we can start working on now, and that is exactly what we have been doing with our partners in this area,” said Lummaux. “From our point of view, not only is hydrogen a technical challenge, but it is also an economic challenge and a political challenge…Obviously, the political challenge…is to make sure the local population, the local communities nearby the airport, are willing to have hydrogen and liquid hydrogen stored at airports. And that's not that easy either.”

At the same time, the aviation industry must address the fact that its rapid growth will mean its current 3 to 4 percent contribution to climate change would increase exponentially if it does not begin to take mitigation measures now, said van Manen. “We can afford, if you like, to be that 3 percent, but we cannot afford to be 20, 30, or 50 percent of the carbon budget in the 2040s,” he explained.

For a start, aviation needs to use more sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), stressed Llewellyn. Airbus’s aircraft can all carry up to 50 percent SAF, but the industry hasn’t exploited the full potential of those products, he added. Llewellyn called it “a real shame” that governments haven’t put in place the necessary policies and incentives to encourage more use of SAF, given that hydrogen in its early application in the 2030s will power mainly regional airplanes and small narrowbodies. At that point, long-range aircraft will need to rely on SAF to do their part in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, given producers use hydrogen as an ingredient in synthetic fuel, SAF’s increased use will create more effective economies of scale for both.

On the subject of policy measures, Llewellyn called on governments to better align their priorities and agree on a long-term plan to create an ecosystem across industries and encourage manufacturers to invest in the technology needed to achieve climate-change objectives. “I’m speaking on behalf of an aircraft manufacturer, but the truck manufacturers, the ship manufacturers, the energy sector, everyone needs to see the same thing that we do,” he said. “Many companies are now global players. So whatever we can do in terms of aligning globally is going to be really important.”