No shame for this flight: Airbus eyes clean hydrogen power

Zero emission aircraft could be flying by 2035

Airbus stunned the aviation industry with its announcement of three concept commercial aircraft powered by zero-emission hydrogen fuel, aiming to put one of these ideas in the air by 2035.

Today, a one-way flight from New York to London contributes nearly a ton of CO2 per passenger to the atmosphere. Prior to the COVID-19 slowdown in air travel, aviation was responsible for 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions and was projected to add 7.8 billion metric tons more by 2040.

Aircraft require a great deal of energy to lift off and stay aloft, and there has been no viable alternative to jet fuel until now.

In June 2020, the largest electric plane ever to take wing flew for 30 minutes over Washington state. It was a modified Cessna Caravan 208B, with room for nine passengers.

Another electric prototype was developed by Bill Otto, a rocket scientist and inventor. His Otto Aviation Celera 500L (shown above), resembling a flying rocket pushed from behind by a propeller, has completed 31 successful flights. What’s stunning is that it can fly 4,500 miles at 450 mph and gets 18-25 miles per gallon. That’s close to the speed of a Boeing 737 with the fuel economy of a midsize SUV. It seats six.


But for large, commercial airplanes, electric power is impractical due to the weight of batteries that would have be carried. Some airlines, including Lufthansa, KLM and Virgin Australia, have experimented with biofuels. However, these fuels are costly compared to jet fuel and large-scale production of feedstocks could take away agricultural land needed for food production.

Hydrogen is not a novel fuel source. It powered the Apollo command module during the 1960s.

The first time I drove a hydrogen-powered car was in 1999 at the Honda R&D facility in Japan. Today, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are available from Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, while hydrogen-powered buses and trams are in use around the world.

“As recently as five years ago, hydrogen propulsion wasn’t even on our radar as a viable emission-reduction technology pathway,” said Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus vice president, zero-emission aircraft, in a press release. “But convincing data from other transport industries quickly changed all that.”

Airbus revealed three different concepts. The one that most resembles today’s airliners (photo at top of story) uses two underwing-mounted turbofan engines, modified to burn hydrogen fuel. The fuel is carried within the fuselage behind the passenger cabin.

A second turbofan-powered concept is referred to as a blended-wing body (above), with hydrogen stored within the wings. The design allows for an unusually wide interior cabin, which could seat up to 200 passengers.

The third Airbus concept is a turboprop plane, a 100-seater with about a 1,000 nautical mile range suitable for short-haul flights.

The retirement of older, fuel-hungry aircraft, accelerated by the industry’s retrenchment this year, will help reduce carbon emissions. Some European and U.S. airlines have committed to significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades.

Biofuels may emerge as an interim technology, but hydrogen holds the promise of an even cleaner fuel source if it is produced using renewable energy. That’s not always the case.

Airbus says that several hydrogen demonstrator programs will get underway in the coming months and that we can expect to see a prototype aircraft in the latter part of this decade.

Airline layoffs begin

The Sept. 30 deadline passed this week without a deal to provide additional federal aid to air carriers, all but insuring that American Airlines and United Airlines will begin furloughing more than 30,000 employees, adding to the economic woes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. House, Senate and White House negotiators remain far apart on the size and scope of a new relief package.

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While facing an economic crisis brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic, airlines, passenger railroads, bus lines and urban transit systems will have to become both economically and environmentally sustainable in ways that deliver equitable, accessible and affordable transportation. Please subscribe to this weekly newsletter, written by a transportation and environmental journalist. See more at