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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and EasyJet Team Up for Hydrogen-Powered Flight

  • U.K. aviation companies are collaborating to develop hydrogen-powered aircraft.
  • The industry is calling for government support in terms of regulation, infrastructure, and funding.
  • Hydrogen flight has the potential to revolutionize sustainable air travel.
Airplane

There has been increasing talk about the potential for hydrogen flight in recent years, as aviation companies look to decarbonise their operations. As passenger electric flight looks increasingly difficult to achieve, due to the heavy weight of existing electric batteries, airlines are exploring the potential for powering planes using hydrogen. To achieve this, they will need the backing of governments worldwide, as well as significant public and private investment in research and development in the hydrogen and aviation industries.  

Aviation is categorised as a hard-to-abate industry, which still relies heavily on fossil fuels. In 2022, the global aviation industry contributed around two percent of the world’s carbon emissions. This figure is expected to continue growing as the demand for air travel increases in the coming decades unless an alternative, green energy source can be scaled for mass use in the industry. Member states of the International Civil Aviation Organisation have pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, meaning that they must invest heavily in research and development into alternative energy sources to power flight, including electric batteries, hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuels. 

In September, three major aviation companies – Airbus, Rolls-Royce and EasyJet, joined forces to launch the Hydrogen in Aviation (HIA) to prepare infrastructure, policy, regulatory and safety frameworks for when the first hydrogen-powered aircraft takes flight. Other HIA members include British parts maker GKN Aerospace and Denmark-based green energy company Orsted. The group hopes that the government will work with it to develop the necessary regulations and standards required to safely achieve hydrogen flight in the next decade. The CEO of EasyJet, Johan Lundgren, stated of the alliance, “It would be unforgivable if actually the aircraft were available ready to fly and we could operate them, but actually, it got hold back because some of these policies weren't really in place.” 

This month, EasyJet joined other HIA members to urge the government to invest in hydrogen-powered flight. Lundgren has repeatedly highlighted the “astonishing” progress in hydrogen flight technology and believes there could be flights using the technology by the end of the 2030s. The HIA hopes that the U.K. will be at the forefront of hydrogen-powered aviation, but it will need support from the government to achieve this. 

The group published a report calling for public funding to support its aims of decarbonising aviation using hydrogen, detailing the steps required to support this objective. It emphasises the need for adequate sectoral regulation, infrastructure development, a skilled workforce and the research and development of hydrogen aviation technology. The report provides the first comprehensive U.K. roadmap for the development of hydrogen-powered planes and could help the industry to decarbonise in the coming decades. 

Lundgren stated, “[The report is] the first time we’ve had everyone across the board saying what’s needed, from experts across the field, setting out actions by timeline before we can see hydrogen aircraft in the sky at a large scale.” He added, it’s “the first time we’ve had everyone across the board saying what’s needed, from experts across the field, setting out actions by timeline before we can see hydrogen aircraft in the sky at a large scale… The breakthroughs in hydrogen-powered technology happening across the UK are truly astonishing but these advances will be inconsequential if we fail to complement them with the appropriate skills, infrastructure, investment and regulation needed.” However, Lundgren believes the industry will require a “staggering” investment from public and private sources to achieve its goals. 

While the HIA is optimistic about the potential for hydrogen flight, it acknowledges that it has a multitude of technical challenges to overcome to achieve its aim. Hydrogen is still extremely difficult to store and transport. High levels of investment will be needed to develop the infrastructure required to produce, store and transport hydrogen before it can be considered for use in aviation. Further, at present, only around one percent of the world’s hydrogen is considered “green”, with most of it still being derived from fossil fuels. Greater investment will be needed not only in hydrogen-powered flight but in the expansion of the green hydrogen industry as a whole. 

This should not, however, deter the U.K. government from preparing the regulatory system and infrastructure required to support hydrogen flight. The aviation companies in the HIA are all optimistic that they will achieve hydrogen flight in the coming decades, with Airbus aiming to launch a 100-seat hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035. EasyJet hopes to develop similar planes by 2040 and Rolls-Royce believes it can develop the hydrogen technology required to power small-mid size aircraft from the mid-2030s onwards. With major aviation companies working together to achieve low-carbon flight, it could help the U.K. lead the way in hydrogen aviation technology over the next decade, providing the blueprint for others to follow.  

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 

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