Airbus establishes facility in the UK to focus on hydrogen technology for aircraft

A model of one of Airbus’ ZEROe concept aircraft, photographed in November 2021. The company said it plans to develop “zero-emission commercial aircraft” by 2035.

Giuseppe Cacace | Afp | Getty Images

aerobus is launching a UK-based facility focused on hydrogen technologies, a move that represents the company’s latest attempt to support the design of its next generation of aircraft.

In a statement Wednesday, Airbus said the Zero Emission Development Center in Filton, Bristol had already begun work on developing the technology.

A major focus of the site will be to focus on working on what Airbus has termed a “cost-competitive cryogenic fuel system” that its ZEROe aircraft will need.

Details of three zero-emission “hydrogen-hybrid” conceptual airplanes with the ZEROe moniker have been released in September 2020. Airbus said it plans to develop “zero-emission commercial aircraft” by 2035.

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The ZEDC in the UK will join other similar sites in Spain, Germany and France. “All Airbus ZEDCs are expected to be fully operational and ready for ground testing with the first fully functional cryogenic hydrogen tank in 2023 and flight tests starting in 2026,” the company said.

Aviation’s environmental footprint is significant, with the World Wildlife Fund describing it as “one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change.” WWF also states that air travel is “currently the most carbon-intensive activity an individual can do”.

Just this week environmental groups have started legal action versus KLMclaiming that the Dutch aviation giant was misleading the public about the sustainability of flight.

KLM was notified of the lawsuit on the same day as the company’s annual general meeting. A spokesperson confirmed that the group received the letter and said it will study its contents.

Hopes for hydrogen

In an interview with CNBC earlier this yearAirbus CEO Guillaume Faury said aviation “could face significant obstacles if we fail to decarbonise at the right pace.”

Faury, who was speaking to CNBC’s Rosanna Lockwood, exposed a number of areas her company was focusing on. These included ensuring that the planes burned less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide.

Additionally, the aircraft the company was delivering had a certified capacity for 50% sustainable aviation fuel in their tanks.

“We need to see the SAF industry move forward, develop, grow to serve airlines and to be able to use that 50% SAF capacity,” he said. “We will go to 100% by the end of the decade”.

The above was a “very important part of what we are doing,” explained Faury. “The next is to look to the future in the medium and long term to bring the hydrogen aircraft to market because this is really the ultimate solution,” he said, noting that a lot of engineering, research and capital efforts would be needed.

Described by the International Energy Agency as a “versatile energy carrier”, hydrogen has a wide range of applications and can be used in a wide range of sectors.

It can be produced in several ways. One method includes the use of electrolysis, with an electric current that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen.

If the electricity used in this process comes from a renewable source such as wind or solar, some call it green or renewable hydrogen. The vast majority of hydrogen production is currently based on fossil fuels.

Airbus is not the only company considering the use of hydrogen in aviation. Plans to operate hydrogen-electric commercial flights between London and Rotterdam were announced last October, with those behind the project hoping it will take off in 2024.

At the time, aviation company ZeroAvia stated that it was developing a 19-seat aircraft that would “fly entirely on hydrogen”. In September 2020, a six-seat hydrogen fuel cell aircraft from the company completed its first flight.

—Sam Meredith of CNBC contributed to this report

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