In Brief

Future of aviation: Airbus to develop world’s first zero-emission aircraft

European aerospace giant aims to launch the hydrogen-fuelled passenger planes by 2035

Airbus has announced ambitious plans to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft. 

Unveiling the designs of the three ZEROe concept planes, the European aerospace giant set a target date of 2035 for the hydrogen-fuelled carriers to take to the skies.

The hi-tech trio of aircraft are all hydrogen-hybrids. “This means they are powered by modified gas-turbine engines that burn liquid hydrogen as fuel,” says Airbus in a statement on the multinational’s website.

“At the same time, they also use hydrogen fuel cells to create electrical power that complements the gas turbine, resulting in a highly efficient hybrid-electric propulsion system.”  

Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury says the ZEROe concepts mark a “historic moment” for the commercial aviation sector, the BBC reports. And the use of hydrogen had the potential to “significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact”, by reducing carbon emissions, he added. 

The combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and jet fuel price hikes has seen the aviation sector hit a turbulent patch in recent years.  

In late June, after calculating the economic costs of what the Financial Times describes as this “difficult time”, Airbus announced plans to cut around 15,000 jobs - including 1,700 in the UK - from its commercial aircraft division by mid-2021. 

But despite the many challenges facing the sector, Airbus engineers are focusing on developing their new “greener” aircraft. 

Presenting the new designs, Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus VP Zero-Emission Aircraft, said: “As recently as five years ago, hydrogen propulsion wasn’t even on our radar as a viable emission-reduction technology pathway. Today, we’re excited by the incredible potential hydrogen offers aviation in terms of disruptive emissions reduction.” 

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Development and prototypes

To meet the ambitious 2035 target, Airbus will need to launch the ZEROe aircraft programme by 2025, to give the company’s engineers enough time to mature all of the required hydrogen technologies. 

Over the coming months, several hydrogen demonstrator programmes, which will test hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen combustion technologies, are expected to be launched. A full-scale aircraft prototype is scheduled to arrive by the late 2020s.

Jean-Brice Dumont, Airbus executive vice president engineering, said: “The ZEROe will be the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft. As an engineer, I can’t think of working on anything more exciting than that.”

Airbus ZEROe infographic

In pictures: ZEROe concept aircraft

Airbus Turbofan ZEROe concept aircraft
Turbofan

Two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines provide thrust. The liquid hydrogen storage and distribution system is located behind the rear pressure bulkhead. The Turbofan is designed to carry up to 200 passengers and have a range of more than 2,000 miles.

Airbus Turboprop ZEROe concept aircraft
Turboprop

Similar to the turbofan aircraft, this concept’s liquid hydrogen storage and distribution system is located behind the rear pressure bulkhead. However, two hybrid hydrogen turboprop engines, which drive the six-bladed propellers, provide thrust. The aircraft will carry 100 passengers and have a range of more than 1,000 miles. 

Airbus Blended-Wing Body (BWB) ZEROe concept aircraft
Blended-Wing Body (BWB)

This configuration features an exceptionally wide interior, which opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution. In this example, the liquid hydrogen storage tanks are stored underneath the wings. Like the Turbofan aircraft, two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines provide thrust. The BWB will carry up to 200 passengers and have a range of more than 2,000 miles. 

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