Airbus has revealed it is developing a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell engine. The propulsion system is being considered as one of the potential solutions to equip its zero-emissions aircraft that will enter service by 2035. Airbus will start ground and flight testing this fuel-cell engine architecture onboard its ZEROe demonstrator aircraft toward the middle of the decade. The A380 MSN1 flight test aircraft for new hydrogen technologies is currently being modified to carry liquid hydrogen tanks and associated distribution systems.
“Fuel cells are a potential solution to help us achieve our zero-emissions ambition and we are focused on developing and testing this technology to understand if it is feasible and viable for a 2035 entry-into-service of a zero-emissions aircraft,” said Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of Zero-Emissions Aircraft at Airbus. “At scale, and if the technology targets were achieved, fuel-cell engines may be able to power a 100-passenger aircraft with a range of approximately 1000 nautical miles [1852 km]. By continuing to invest in this technology we are giving ourselves additional options that will inform our decisions on the architecture of our future ZEROe aircraft, the development of which we intend to launch in the 2027-2028 timeframe.”
Airbus identified hydrogen as one of the most promising alternatives to power a zero-emissions aircraft since it emits no carbon dioxide when generated from renewable energy and water is its most significant byproduct. Airbus identified two ways hydrogen can be used as a power source for aircraft propulsion. The first is via hydrogen combustion in a gas turbine, second, by using fuel cells to convert hydrogen into electricity to power a propeller engine. A hydrogen gas turbine can also be coupled with fuel cells instead of batteries in a hybrid-electric architecture.
Airbus said that hydrogen fuel cells, especially when stacked together, increase power output and allow scalability. In addition, an engine powered by hydrogen fuel cells produces zero NOx emissions or contrails thereby offering additional decarbonization benefits. Airbus has been exploring the possibilities of fuel-cell propulsion systems for aviation for some time. In October 2020, Airbus created Aerostack, a joint venture with ElringKlinger, a company with more than 20 years of experience as both a fuel-cell systems and component supplier. In December 2020, Airbus presented its pod-concept which included six removable fuel-cell propeller propulsion systems.