Embraer has sharpened the early focus for its Energia future aircraft program to a hybrid-electric concept and a hydrogen fuel-cell approach in its contribution to the industry’s effort to reach carbon-neutral operation by 2050. The decision follows more extensive consultation by the Brazilian airframer with an advisory group of airlines over the past year or so to set priorities among some 20 aircraft concepts, four of which—including direct hydrogen combustion and a fully electric option—account for the main pillars of the Energia concept.
Now completing the first phase of its program, Embraer will first tackle a high-performance application carrying 19 passenger seats and flying 200 nm. A 30-seater would come next and bring better operating economics. Plans call for the hybrid-electric option to reach “technology readiness” in the early 2030s and the hydrogen fuel cell-powered application by 2035.
Appearing during an online briefing with journalists on Monday, Embraer Commercial aircraft v-p of marketing Rodrigo Silva e Souza noted the advisory board’s influence on the decision to set the priority on the hybrid and hydrogen fuel-cell options. “I have personally participated in over a dozen of those meetings and that is key to defining requirements like capacity, range, takeoff performance, and maintenance requirements, for instance,” he explained. “And these are essential, let's say in a normal product development; for those concepts that are novel technology, they are even more important.” The advisory board consists of 25 members from 20 airlines, said Silva e Souza, coming from all over the world and representing several business models.
Embraer vice president of engineering Luis Carlos Affonso explained that, although direct hydrogen and fully electric propulsion systems have their place, hybrid-electric and hydrogen fuel cells show the most promise for what he called the mid-capacity Energia family. “We have not given up on those other technologies; for example, in our Eve eVTOL we are employing fully electric because it’s low capacity and short range,” said Affonso. “On the other hand, if you go to a bigger airplane, let’s say 100 seats up, then the big gas turbines, they are efficient. Then you can have direct hydrogen burn. In the middle, where the Energia family is, in both capacity and range, then small gas turbines are not very efficient and fully electric is too heavy.”
Affonso also noted that this so-called disruptive moment allows the opportunity to disrupt the supply chain. He explained that although Embraer continues to talk with its existing engine partners, for example, he said that startup propulsion suppliers now might seize an opportunity to participate in elements such as thermal management systems.
One of the distinctive design elements of the Energia airplanes involves the placement of the propellers near the rear of the airplane, which not only will aid in noise reduction, but serve design efficiency given their close proximity to electric motors, possibly hydrogen fuel tanks, fuel cells, thermal management systems, and wire harnesses.
First unveiled in November 2021, the four-member Energia concept debuted as a nine- to 50-seat family of airplanes whose range could extend to 500 nm. At the time, Embraer Commercial Aviation president Arjan Meijer said that some, if not all, of the concepts, will undergo full program launches within five to 10 years. Embraer believes its new family of aircraft can capitalize on a “regionalization” trend that it believes will continue to see people and organizations relocate from major cities, necessitating improved, short-haul transportation links. It adds that new propulsion and digital technology means that smaller aircraft, like the Energia family, will result in more economic viability.
The company believes that the so-called regional air mobility (RAM) trend will complement the emerging urban air mobility (UAM) sector for which its Eve subsidiary is developing a four-passenger all-electric eVTOL aircraft for service entry in 2026. Meijer said that the expanded scope of the new RAM and UAM sectors collectively could more than double Embraer’s current projections for the mainstream regional airline market from around 4,000 anticipated deliveries to as many as 9,000.
Embraer’s update of its Energia plans follows a week after Airbus outlined its own sustainability strategy at its Sustainability Summit in Toulouse and Munich, during which it highlighted its own efforts to bring a hydrogen-powered narrowbody to market. During the event, Airbus said it has accelerated work on the development of a hydrogen fuel cell engine as part of its studies into a zero-emission aircraft scheduled for service entry by 2035.
As part of its wider preparations for hydrogen-powered air transport, the European airframer announced a partnership with space group Ariane to build a liquid hydrogen refueling system at its Toulouse, France, headquarters by 2025. During the summit, it also reported that it has begun working with green hydrogen specialist HyPort to create a hydrogen production, storage, and distribution facility at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport ready for operation in 2023.
Airbus said it will start ground and flight testing the proposed fuel cell engine architecture onboard its ZeroE hydrogen-powered demonstrator aircraft toward the middle of this decade. The A380 MSN1 flight test aircraft for new hydrogen technologies is now undergoing modification to carry liquid hydrogen tanks and their associated distribution systems.