“Hydrogen will play a key role in transforming aviation into a zero-carbon system over the next few decades.”
Bart Biebuyck, Executive Director, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, FCH JU. (1)
Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Undertaking (FCH JU) works to facilitate the introduction of these technologies in Europe based on their potential in a carbon-clean energy system. How the European market is implementing hydrogen technologies and what are their main advantages?
In the last twelve years, the FCH JU has extensively funded research and demonstration projects with the aim of increasing the market viability and commercialisation of fuel cell and hydrogen technologies. During this time, the European market has considerably scaled up, making us leaders in electrolysers, hydrogen refuelling stations, fuel cell trains and fuel cell buses. A growing demand for other applications such as micro-combined heat and power units can also be observed. These innovative technologies will allow Europe to integrate the use of renewable electricity in many sectors that up to now were difficult to decarbonise. Cheaper, more robust and efficient electrolyser will allow to produce green hydrogen to be used as industrial feedstock replacing fossil fuel based hydrogen or to cover their high temperature heat demand replacing natural gas, fuel oil or even coal, with their associated emissions. The use of fuel cells will provide transport end users a zero-emission solution without compromising the performance of their vehicles in for example driving range and refuelling time, both for cars and heavy-duty applications.
Hydrogen propulsion has an underestimated potential to reduce the climate impact for the decarbonisation of aviation by 2050, as targeted by the European Commission. By now, what are the main steps taken by the aviation industry regarding to hydrogen technologies in order to face this new challenge?
Together with Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking, we have recently commissioned an independent study (see here) which analyses the major role innovative hydrogen technologies can play in the decarbonisation of the aviation industry.
One of the clear outcomes of the study was that hydrogen will play a key role in transforming aviation into a zero-carbon system over the next few decades. Hydrogen – as a primary energy source for propulsion, either for fuel cells, direct burn in thermal (gas turbine) engines or as a building block for synthetic liquid fuels – could feasibly power aircraft with entry into service by 2035 for short-range aircraft. Very recently first flights with hydrogen propulsion have been performed.
Recognising the huge potential of hydrogen propulsion to reduce aviation’s climate impact, the aviation industry is stepping up its investments in further developing these technologies. Electrification of airplane propulsion is a clear market trend. But even though battery technology has vastly improved in the past 20 years, batteries suffer from a low gravimetric energy density, making hydrogen and fuel cells the natural alternative for the future electric propulsion.
The significant potential of hydrogen has also been confirmed by individual efforts of companies such as Zeroavia or Airbus.
Research plays a key role in discovering the full potential of hydrogen technologies in the aviation sector. Can you tell about the current R&I roadmap and the main areas is focused on?
Broadly speaking four major research areas require significant research and development before hydrogen propulsion can be a reality for aviation. Firstly, we need to develop light liquid hydrogen storage systems that can be integrated in the aircrafts, including the evaporation systems to allow the injection of the hydrogen in its gaseous form. Secondly, the need to develop 1.5+ MW fuel cells meeting the energy density requirements of the industry has been identified by the industry. In addition, for larger aircrafts, low NOx emission hydrogen turbines need to be further developed. And finally, all the ground liquid hydrogen infrastructure needs to optimised. All these research areas need to be complemented with an adequate regulatory framework, including current codes and standards to enhance the exploitation of these technologies on a Europe and international scale. Industry experts anticipate that it will take 10 to 15 years to make these important advancements, and consequently the research needs to start now.
Hydrogen technologies will require significant development of fuel cell technology and liquid hydrogen tanks, investment into fleet and hydrogen infrastructure and a long-term policy framework. Is it the aviation industry ready to start its transformation?
Hydrogen and fuel cells are not new to the aircraft sector. Many successful demonstrations and developments have already taken place. The recently adopted Green Deal has now set ambitious emission reduction targets for 2030, calling ultimately for climate neutrality across all sectors (not only the aviation sector) by 2050 in Europe. The cost of producing clean hydrogen came down in recent years thanks to cheaper renewable electricity and bigger and cheaper production technology. At the same time, fuel cell performance in terms of durability, capacity and cost has made big steps forward. The hydrogen and fuel cell technology developers are ready to work hand in hand with the aviation industry to design, test and produce the required components and make zero-emission aviation an everyday reality. In order to make all pieces of the puzzle fall into place a strong political will combined with industrial leadership is required. Many things remain to be done, but this is an opportunity we need to seize now.
Airbus has recently unveiled three hydrogen-powered aircraft concepts, leading the role of the transition to hydrogen. Is this the boost needed to bet on hydrogen’s potential use in aviation?
Airbus has recently shown their commitment to the decarbonisation of the entire aviation industry and its announcement of various hydrogen based airplanes has been a great confirmation on what was anticipated in our study. Beyond Airbus’ concept plans, also the Zeroavia flight test, the French plans to invest €15 billion into aerospace industry announced just a few weeks ago, and the European Hydrogen Strategy all converge in one: Hydrogen power for aviation could be feasible, affordable and could significantly reduce the climate impact of flying, but only if the right support for R&I and the aviation sector starts now. To make our bold visions of zero-emission flights a reality we have an exciting path to follow.
(1) The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) is a unique public private partnership supporting research, technological development and demonstration (RTD) activities in fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies in Europe. Its aim is to accelerate the market introduction of these technologies, realising their potential as an instrument in achieving a carbon-clean energy system. The three members of the FCH JU are the European Commission, fuel cell and hydrogen industries represented by Hydrogen Europe and the research community represented by Hydrogen Europe Research.