Airbus has successfully flown an aircraft using hydrogen as the sole fuel source for the first time, as it aims to make H2-powered flight commercially available by 2035.

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The French aircraft manufacturer strapped a small hydrogen combustion engine to the back of a glider, which flew for about 30 minutes on 8 November, according to a press release issued yesterday (Thursday) — and has since completed two further flights.

Because it is a glider, it cannot take off using its own power and has to be towed into the air using a conventional airplane.

The flights are part of an experiment called Blue Condor that will study contrails from the hydrogen engine.

“Hydrogen offers aviation a path to low-carbon operations, yet its combustion produces contrails just like conventional jet fuel. Hydrogen contrails, however, differ significantly. They don’t contain soot or sulphur oxides, but do hold nitrous oxides and a lot of water vapour: up to 2.5 times more than kerosene contrails,” the press release explained.

“Both are considered climate-impacting emissions, and as such the aviation industry has a duty to address them.

“Therefore, as part of the ZEROe [hydrogen aircraft commercialization] project, Airbus is committed to studying the composition of these little-understood hydrogen contrails.”

The contrail testing will begin in Nevada early next year, conducted by the company’s innovation arm, Airbus UpNext, when the H2 glider will be flown alongside an identical glider equipped with a similar-sized kerosene engine.

A third “chase” aircraft equipped with sensors will then follow behind, that will collect and analyse contrail and atmospheric data.

“The [first] flight promises to be a big step in furthering understanding of hydrogen’s climate impact, and ultimately in reaching Airbus’ ZEROe target entry into service in 2035,” said the company, which is also developing hydrogen fuel-cell-propelled aircraft.

The world’s first 100%-hydrogen-powered flight took place in September when Stuttgart-based H2Fly flew its small HY4 demonstrator aircraft with fuel cells powered by liquid H2.

Rival hydrogen aircraft developers ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen also successfully flew hydrogen-powered planes earlier this year, but in both cases only one of their two engines were powered by H2, with the other running on conventional jet fuel.