Plans for hydrogen jets are finally getting off the ground after years in the works. As one of the biggest carbon polluters, the aviation industry has been pumping huge quantities of funds into the research and development of low-carbon jet fuels and other potential emissions-reducing technologies. As international investment in green hydrogen increases, the aviation sector may finally be able to use the clean fuel to power flights in a momentous move towards the decarbonisation of air travel.
In November, Rolls-Royce, in partnership with easyJet, moved to the testing phase of its low-carbon aviation development. The two companies conducted the ground test of a jet engine, using green hydrogen from tidal and wind energy to power it. Aerospace firm Roll-Royce said it was “the world’s first run of a modern aero engine on hydrogen,” marking a significant step towards the low-carbon future of aviation.
The Chief Technology Officer of Rolls-Royce, Grazia Vittadini, stated: “The success of this hydrogen test is an exciting milestone.” She added, “We only announced our partnership with easyJet in July and we are already off to an incredible start with this landmark achievement. We are pushing the boundaries to discover the zero carbon possibilities of hydrogen, which could help reshape the future of flight.”
The test was conducted in the U.K., at an outdoor site, on a converted Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A regional aircraft engine. The hydrogen was delivered from European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, Scotland – an area that has long been developing its wave and tidal power operations. This is an example of private investment leading to technological innovations that could hugely support government aims to cut carbon emissions over the coming decades.
The U.K. secretary of state for business, Grant Shapps, stated: “This is a true British success story, with the hydrogen being used to power the jet engine today produced using tidal and wind energy from the Orkney Islands of Scotland.”
Other major aviation companies, such as Airbus, have also outlined plans to use green hydrogen fuel in their aircraft in the future. However, to achieve this goal, greater funding needs to be pumped into research and development to reach the stage where commercial planes can use green hydrogen or other low-carbon fuels. In fact, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary stated last year, “I think ... we should be honest again,” he said. “Certainly, for the next decade ... I don’t think you’re going to see any — there’s no technology out there that’s going to replace … carbon, jet aviation.” He added, “I don’t see the arrival of … hydrogen fuels, I don’t see the arrival of sustainable fuels, I don’t see the arrival of electric propulsion systems, certainly not before 2030.”
Nevertheless, the test flight marks a major advancement in the technology. Rolls-Royce and easyJet now have plans for a second series of test runs, to be followed by the full-scale ground testing of a Rolls-Royce Pearl 15 jet engine.
The production of green hydrogen has lagged behind other renewable energy sources due to its high cost. Despite the potential for abundant clean energy, that could be used as an alternative to natural gas and other fuels for heating and transport, energy companies previously steered clear of clean hydrogen production, opting instead for cheaper solar, wind, and hydro projects. However, there has been a significant rise in hydrogen investment over the last year, with several European countries announcing major new facilities and green hydrogen infrastructure.
Recently, Spain has announced a $53 million green hydrogen plant in Puertollano, while the U.K. has plans fora $184 million plant at the port of Felixstowe. ScottishPower stated this year that a major new green hydrogen facility is expected to produce 100 MW of energy, enough to power 1,300 hydrogen trucks from 2026. These new projects reflect optimistic estimations that the global hydrogen market could achieve $1 trillion a year by 2050.
In addition to major new facilities, Europe is looking to develop its hydrogen infrastructure at the regional level, to ensure that green hydrogen has the transport system it needs to reach other EU states once it comes into production. The Port of Rotterdam plans to create “the first green hydrogen corridor between southern and northern Europe”, establishing the region’s first major green hydrogen supply chain.
As more green hydrogen plants commence operations, companies across the energy, automotive, and aviation industries will be battling it out to ensure they get a steady supply of the much-talked-about clean energy source to support the decarbonisation of their operations. And as Rolls-Royce and easyJet advance in their development of low-carbon aviation, other companies will be competing to do the same, racing to get the first commercial green hydrogen flights off the ground.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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