Hydrogen-Powered Electric Airplanes

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September 21, 2022




Hydrogen-Powered Electric Airplanes

Global warming, carbon emissions, and their impact on the environment have raised the need for airlines to develop next-gen, fuel-efficient, and environmental-friendly aircrafts. According to the European Commission’s report, the airline industry emits 3.8% of EU greenhouse gases. Hydrogen-powered electric airplanes do not produce carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions. Thus, these airplanes are getting serious attention as the next step in the evolution of air transportation.

Why Hydrogen-Powered Electric Airplanes?

Hydrogen-powered electric airplanes reduce carbon footprint as they only emit water. The best part is that initial tests show that these planes can have similar speeds to existing aircrafts. Additionally, they will be able to carry the same number of passengers on each flight for thousands of kilometers.

Smaller planes use propellers along with hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Bigger planes use hydrogen-burning fueling systems to power jet engines. However, the technology to store enough liquid hydrogen to power fuel cells and jet engines needs improvement. Furthermore, there is also a need to come up with a way to transport hydrogen to airports and refuel planes on the runway. Aircrafts may even require a redesign to integrate the necessary mechanisms and tubing to fly as hydrogen-powered aircrafts.

Hydrogen-Powered Electric Airplanes: Developments and Collaborations

Boeing flew the world’s first hydrogen-powered airplane back in 2008. After that, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) demonstrated the flight of a four-seater hydrogen-powered plane named H2FLY. There have been several developments and collaborations within the aviation industry to make hydrogen-powered aircrafts a reality. Let us explore some of the recent developments in hydrogen-powered electric airplanes.

Flying V by Delft University

Delft University in Netherlands is home to one of Europe’s largest aerospace engineering departments. In July 2020, the university successfully demonstrated a new hydrogen-powered aircraft design called Flying V at Lower Saxony’s Fassberg Airbase in Germany. The model airplane tested was 10ft (3 meters) wide. The Delft University team included a drone pilot, engineers, and researchers and it took the team a year and a half to build the plane.

The Flying-V aircraft model is a conceptual design by a TU Berlin student. The design already has the support and backing of Airbus and KLM. This radical design promises 20% more efficiency as compared to conventional aircrafts that exist today. The plane design also includes a cargo hold, fuel tanks, cabin, and passenger holding space. All these amenities will be enclosed in a V-shaped structure. The Flying-V, at its full size, will be just as big as an Airbus A350, and will have the capability to carry over 300 passengers.

United Airlines and ZeroAvia

United Airlines has invested in a hydrogen-electric airplane engine company known as ZeroAvia. So far, this engine company has bagged an investment of approximately $115 million. United Airlines has also included a provision to buy around 100 hydrogen-electric engines developed by ZeroAvia in the future.

This is an effort by United Airlines to start reducing its aircraft fleet’s greenhouse gas emissions. United Airlines aims to reduce its harmful emissions by 100% by 2050.

Alaska Air Group and ZeroAvia

In 2021, Alaska Air Group announced a partnership with ZeroAvia to develop a hydrogen-electric power-train engine. This engine will be able to fly a 76-seater regional airplane. Alaska Airlines, a subsidiary of Alaska Air Group, has also formed Alaska Star Ventures which will enable advancements in electric aircraft technologies.

Icelandair and Universal Hydrogen

Icelandair and Universal Hydrogen have signed an LOI to collaborate on the development of green hydrogen for aircraft fueling as a step to reduce carbon emissions. Universal Hydrogen is currently working on a couple of solutions like a hydrogen fuel distribution system and an aftermarket hydrogen conversion technology. Icelandair will use these technologies in DHC-8-200 airplanes.

Connect Airlines and Universal Hydrogen

Connect Airlines has signed an LOI with Universal Hydrogen to purchase eco-friendly hydrogen conversion kits. The airline intends to buy 12 Dash 8-300 kits with an option for further rights to purchase 12 more kits for other types of aircrafts.

Project HEAVEN

Project HEAVEN in Spain is currently working on the integration of various components involved in the process of developing hydrogen-powered electric airplanes. The project currently aims to develop a power train that will generate electric power from hydrogen, enabling the plane’s propellers to turn at high speeds.

The project is also working on a storage system to hold enough liquid hydrogen and enable commercial long-haul flights. According to experts, if HEAVEN succeeds, this will be the world’s first system to store liquid hydrogen for airplanes. The storage system will connect to an electric motor and fuel cells. Air Liquide, a French company, is building this hydrogen storage system, and it will start testing flights by the end of 2022.

Zeroe Concept by Airbus

Airbus aims to develop world’s first zero emission hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035. The company has unveiled three Zeroe concept hydrogen-powered aircrafts to achieve this ambition. All the three concepts are hybrid hydrogen aircrafts which will powered by hydrogen combustion through modified gas turbine engines. However, these concept aircrafts are smaller as compared to traditional short-haul aircrafts and long-haul jet airliners.

The Future

The main concern with hydrogen powered airplanes is the effective placement of hydrogen tanks so that better safety, higher speeds, and improved fuel efficiency are achieved. Many trials and tests will have to be carried out and we may even see some unorthodox designs to make this concept of hydrogen-powered electric airplanes a reality.

A successful aircraft design will be a mixture of many components. Therefore, the designers have to find the right balance in which all the systems work together in tandem to achieve their maximum potential. Once the industry has a viable design that offers maximum efficiency in fuel storage and safe flights, we might be able to see hydrogen powered electric aircrafts on our skies. It may take some time, but the industry seems to be on the right track, and hydrogen-powered electric planes will be a reality in the near future.

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