Boeing 737 Max

Airbus and Boeing to embrace hydrogen from mid-2030s

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Airbus and Boeing will launch successors to their bestselling single-aisle jets powered by hydrogen from around the middle of the next decade, according to the CEO of Universal Hydrogen in an interview with Reuters.

Aviation is a notoriously hard-to-abate sector, with many environmental campaigners and experts arguing that there is no choice but to reduce flying in order to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Most efforts to reduce emissions at present are focused on increasing the fraction of fuel sourced sustainably, although sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) remains relatively inaccessible and expensive.

Airbus has sought to lead in the transition to greener aviation, demonstrating zero-emission aircraft concepts last year (eschewing batteries in favour of hydrogen) which it said could enter service by 2035. For its part, Boeing has been more cautious in its public statements regarding the long-term switch to battery and hydrogen-powered aircraft. The latter has said that it is too early to think about hydrogen as a fuel for a future 737 successor and has stated that its focus remains on SAF.

Paul Eremenko, CEO of Universal Hydrogen, has countered Boeing’s assertions in an appearance at the Reuters Next conference. Eremenko, formerly CTO for Airbus, co-founded Universal Hydrogen in 2020 with the intention of accelerating the use of hydrogen fuel cells in aircraft, beginning with small aircraft performing domestic and regional flights. However, Reuters states that he is also intent on breaking into the busy commercial market for 150+ seat single-aisle jets currently dominated by the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 models.

“I think there will be a new airplane in that class from both aircraft manufacturers probably around the mid-2030s, which means they would need to make a decision on that by the late 2020s,” he said. “We want to make sure that the decision is to make that a hydrogen airplane.

“Irrespective of the rhetoric that we hear today on this subject, I think by the time this is in service of the regional market […] in 2025 the tenor of the conversation is going to fundamentally change.”

Eremenko reasserted his prediction that the next generation of single-aisle jets would use hydrogen: “When it is visibly in commercial service […] I think it will be uncontroversial and irrefutable that the next generation single-aisle has to be a hydrogen airplane in the 2030s.”

He also addressed the challenge of scaling up hydrogen production, distribution and refuelling infrastructure: “There is no real fundamental science to be done. There is no fundamental invention. It is engineering, hard engineering, and a lot of engineering will need to happen over the next decade to make this possible.”

Although hydrogen-powered flight is not new – with hydrogen-powered military aircraft having been tested since the 1950s – the size and range of the aircraft that can be fuelled by hydrogen remains very limited. Last year, ZeroAvia carried out a test flight from its R&D facility at Cranfield Airport to demonstrate a commercially available aircraft powered by hydrogen fuel cells. However, the aircraft had just six seats and the flight lasted for just 20 minutes.

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