Hydrogen aircraft

How hydrogen aircraft can redefine global connectivity

Image credit: Wirestock/Dreamstime

Hydrogen-powered flight is poised to play a significant part in delivering a green revolution in the way we travel, and in boosting the UK’s role in a worldwide transport revolution.

The introduction of zero-emission aircraft will enable us to rethink our approach to regional connectivity and the way we currently fly, according to a recent report from the New Aviation Propulsion Knowledge and Innovation Network (NAPKIN), a consortium of nine UK organisations set up to establish a blueprint for zero-carbon aviation by modelling the introduction of low or zero-emissions aircraft into regional and short-haul aviation.

The report's authors concluded that zero-carbon-emission flight on sub-regional routes, using aircraft that range in size from 7 to 19 seats, will be feasible from the middle of this decade. The report also projects that it could be cost-effective to replace the entire UK regional fleet with safe, certified, zero-carbon emission larger aircraft comprising 50-90 seats by 2040.

As the Aerospace Technology Institute’s FlyZero study pointed out and as Airbus revealed at its 2022 technology summit, significant progress can – and is – being made within R&D for larger aircraft powered by hydrogen, with larger aircraft potentially using hydrogen combustion coming into service in the mid-2030s.

We don’t have to wait until then though. Hydrogen technology in aviation is closer than you think, and will start small. For example, at Cranfield Aerospace Solutions we are working to convert the propulsion system of a Britten-Norman Islander nine-seat aircraft to that of gaseous hydrogen via a fuel-cell system, with the goal of bringing it into commercial service by 2026, flying routes of up to 200km.

There is an immediate role for hydrogen, and it is encouraging that greater consideration is being given to the so-called ‘sub-regional’ element of air travel. Adjusting to net-zero aviation by 2050 (and, in some countries, even more stringent targets) means that operators across the world are viewing shorter journeys in a new light. Newer sub-regional routes, relying on smaller zero-emission aircraft flying from smaller airports close to the communities that they serve, are increasingly being viewed as crucial building blocks and a way to prove the technology before it is matured to larger aircraft.

The recent announcement that Cranfield Aerospace Solutions has been selected by Air New Zealand as the hydrogen-powered aircraft partner for the Mission Next Gen Aircraft programme illustrates how the airline is leading the way in considering how smaller zero-emission aircraft could be used on shorter routes where much larger aircraft have traditionally been used. This will have knock-on effects on fleet management and operational models, but in this new age of aviation, everything needs to be reassessed. And with kerosene prices predicted to rise significantly owing to carbon taxes, and the price of hydrogen predicted to fall owing to more renewable energy coming on stream for production, the cost equation is changing.

Further investigations should also be carried out into how many sub-regional airports could be resurrected to serve passenger services. The infrastructure, which is already there and just needs an upgrade, could serve as a local hydrogen-generation hub, powering not just aircraft but the airport itself and possibly the surrounding community.

From an industrial competitiveness point of view, nations that take a lead in delivering sub-regional green aircraft will have a significant strategic advantage over their competitors. The UK is sending the right signals with the publication and now implementation of its Jet Zero Strategy, but there needs to be a greater sense of urgency. Policy can drive innovation, and through innovation the world has a unifying pathway towards addressing the climate emergency while multiplying jobs and creating economic opportunities. Countries like the UK can flatten the research and development curves of the technologies, drive down costs and make adoption easier on a global scale.

Targets are essential to maintaining focus and helping sustain the momentum that is required to achieve environmental goals. It is encouraging that in aviation stringent targets are not only being agreed on, but some nations are choosing to set even more challenging ones. As my colleague Jenny Kavanagh wrote recently, the newly adopted International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) long-term global aspirational goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 marks a turning point by providing an international policy framework for the global aviation community to adhere to. But this should only be considered as the bare minimum.

There is much ground to cover between now and 2050, and many countries are throwing down the gauntlet to industry by implementing more near-term targets. Take, for example, the US states of California and Hawaii, both of which require net zero to be reached by 2045 and not 2050. In terms of aviation, Norway has a target of zero-emissions internal flights by 2040. Closer to home, the UK government will consult next year on a target to for domestic flights to reach net zero by 2040.

These targets clearly demonstrate the commitment to decarbonise aviation and have an important signalling effect in driving industry – and associated investment – to accelerate sustainability developments.

The road to true zero-emission aircraft will be complex. Different technologies will coexist for a certain period until a complete switch towards zero-carbon and zero-emissions aviation can be achieved. Whatever the technology, there must be no let-up in pace: as an industry we must not be complacent; we must assume that eventually governments will intervene in response to public pressure and curtail air traffic volumes if the aviation sector does not meet its environmental goals.

Countries like the UK can flatten the research and development curves of the technologies, drive down costs and make adoption easier on a global scale. And we must all play our part – on the small scale and on the large – collaborating at home and with partners on the other side of the globe.

Paul Hutton is chief executive of Cranfield Aerospace Solutions.

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