Budget airline EasyJet, aircraft manufacturer Airbus and engine supplier Rolls-Royce have joined forces to establish a new “Hydrogen in Aviation” (HIA) alliance, with the aim to accelerate the delivery of zero-carbon flight, particular for short-haul.
“HIA will work to ensure the UK capitalises on the huge opportunity hydrogen presents to both the aviation industry and country as a whole,” said a statement released by the partners.
“While there are various options for decarbonising the aviation sector, including sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), synthetic fuels or batteries, HIA believes that more attention should be paid to the potential of the direct use of hydrogen.”
While H2 offers the potential for zero-carbon aviation, it has several fundamental problems that make it far from straightforward. The first is that burning hydrogen in air produces high levels of toxic nitrous oxides that are harmful to human health.
Second, hydrogen’s far lower energy density by volume compared to jet fuel means that long-distance H2 aircraft would need far larger fuel tanks to fly the same distance, probably necessitating redesigned planes. The volume of fuel tanks could be reduced by using liquefied H2 rather than compressed hydrogen, but that would present its own problems, including the difficultiesy of keeping it at temperatures below minus 253C and dealing with the resulting boil-off (when cryogenic hydrogen warms up and expands as it becomes a gas).
This is why the HIA is focused on short-haul flights that would not necessarily require huge fuel tanks.
A third problem is the lack of hydrogen infrastructure at airports, and the associated transportation of H2.
Nevertheless, Airbus has been developing hydrogen-powered aircraft since 2020, with a view to commercializing at least one commercial plane by 2035; EasyJet announced last year that it would invest a “multi-million-pound figure” in H2 aviation; while Rolls-Royce’s first hydrogen aircraft engine was successfully ground-tested in the UK last November.
Danish renewables giant Orsted, aviation technology supplier GKN Aerospace and the UK’s Bristol Airport have also joined the HIA as founding members.
However, the leading small-scale hydrogen-aircraft developers — ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen — which have both conducted test flights using one hydrogen-powered engine combined with a conventional second engine, have not joined the HIA.
“The group will be drawing on their considerable expertise to propose a clear and deliverable pathway to achieving hydrogen-powered aviation,” says the group in its statement. “HIA will work constructively with Government, local authorities, and the aviation and hydrogen sectors to enable the UK to fulfil its potential as a global leader in this critical application of hydrogen technology.
“This will include setting out the pathway for scaling up the infrastructure and the policy, regulatory and safety frameworks needed so that large scale commercial aviation can become a reality.
“The alliance will set out that Government needs to be focused on three key areas which are; supporting the delivery of the infrastructure needed for the UK to be a global leader; ensuring the aviation regulatory regime is hydrogen ready; and transforming the funding for hydrogen aviation R&D support into a 10 year programme, if the UK is to see the economic benefits and meet decarbonisation targets.”
EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren, who is also the first chairman of HIA, said that hydrogen aviation could boost the UK economy by £34bn ($42.7m) a year by 2050, “but in order to capture this opportunity, rapid change is needed and the time to act is now”.
“We must work together to deliver the radical solutions required for a hard-to-abate industry like aviation so we can protect and maximise the benefits that it brings to the UK economy and society and that we know British consumers want to be preserved.”
Airbus chief technology officer Sabine Klauke added: “A united industry voice is needed to secure a robust ecosystem of renewably sourced hydrogen.”
In July last year, the UK government launched its “Jet Zero strategy” to reach net-zero emissions for domestic flights by 2040, but its focus was on SAF, rather than hydrogen.
As part of the HIA announcement, EasyJet said it commissioned a survey of 2,000 Brits last month, which found that 91% of respondents would support UK government investment in hydrogen production and usage in aviation, with 89% saying they think the use of hydrogen should be prioritised for hard-to-abate sectors such as aviation.