Hydrogen-powered flights by 2035?

10 mins

The search for sustainable air travel is an urgent concern for the aviation sector. The firs...

Mane Aerospace Team

By Mane Aerospace Team

The search for sustainable air travel is an urgent concern for the aviation sector. The first major European air show since COVID-19, the Farnborough International Airshow, saw the launch of a new Aerospace Global Forum to drive change towards net zero.

At the same event, the World Economic Forum’s Target True Zero initiative unveiled its first report, Unlocking Sustainable Battery and Hydrogen-Powered Flight. The report looks at the role of battery or hydrogen propulsion could play in decarbonising aviation.

According to the report, by 2035 we could have three promising alternatives to fossil-fuel propulsion for aircraft.

  • Fully battery-electric aircraft would allow zero-emissions flights over the shortest distances.
  • Fuel cells electrified using hydrogen could power mid-range flights.
  • Direct hydrogen combustion could power flights of any distance.

Cutting carbon during flight is only part of the issue. The impact of the full manufacturing life cycle of any fuel or battery needs to be taken into account. And because aviation releases emissions high up in Earth’s atmosphere–including non-CO2 emissions, which are thought to have twice the climate impact of CO2–it’s also important to examine how alternative fuel sources could impact these.

This is the first major report on the full climate impact of alternative propulsion technologies, and provides decision-makers with a roadmap to realising the potential of hydrogen and battery-powered aviation. The report identified eight key unlocks that would allow the technologies to be adopted:

  1. Ensuring aviation batteries are charged with renewable energy
  2. Accelerating the introduction of green hydrogen
  3. Improving battery life cycles and management for aviation
  4. Improving battery-electric aircraft energy density
  5. Developing lighter fuel cell systems
  6. Developing lighter storage tanks for liquid hydrogen
  7. Redesigning aircraft for optimised hydrogen performance
  8. Contrail research and mitigation

These unlocks will not be easy to achieve. Industry stakeholders will need to commit to pulling together for as long as it takes. However, as King Charles III said in a foreword to the new report, “The current ‘business as usual’ position for sectors like aviation is increasingly understood to be unsustainable and untenable, but we are seeing an explosion of new thinking, new ideas and approaches that can allow us to reinvent that status quo”.

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