Hydrogen Fuel Could Revolutionize the Aviation Industry

Hydrogen Fuel Could Revolutionize the Aviation Industry

To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the aviation industry is searching for ways to reduce carbon output and increase fuel efficiency in one of the world’s hardest to abate sectors. Sustainable fuels, biofuel, and battery-powered airplanes are all considered solutions, but now industry heads are looking to hydrogen fuel as the most viable alternative to dirty jet fuel. Hydrogen fuel is a promising option because it works with a wide range of aircraft sizes for both short- and long-haul flights.

Airbus recently announced plans to create the first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035 using hydrogen fuel technologies. Airbus plans to modify their A380 airliner, the largest passenger airplane in service, by adding a hydrogen-combustion engine at the back of the plane to test hydrogen-powered flights in real-world conditions.

Bloomberg: Airbus CEO - More Confident Daily in Hydrogen Plane Delivery, September 22, 2021.

Airbus: A new era of hydrogen-powered flight #ZEROe, ebruary 22, 2022.

Why This Matters

Air travel is responsible for around 2.1% of global emissions, releasing close to 1 billion tons of carbon per year. While flights have decreased since the COVID-19 outbreak, proactive measures to reduce emissions as travel ramps back up again are essential. Hydrogen fuel could help transition the aviation sector toward a more sustainable, zero-emissions future. Hydrogen power is critical for decarbonizing some of the hardest-transitioning sectors, such as cement, steel, aluminum, and aviation, because of its unique ability to produce intense heat similar to oil and gas, according to Hydrogen Forward, a coalition of companies working to make hydrogen a key contributor to the clean energy transition.

The Economist: Can flying go green?, February 10, 2022.

The  Hydrogen Rainbow Some Colors are Better Than Others

There are many ways to turn hydrogen into energy. Based on climate-friendliness and reliance on fossil fuels, those methods are assigned a hue on a color-coded scale known as the “hydrogen rainbow.” Nearly all hydrogen fuel cell plants in the US rely on the steam-methane reforming processes, which uses natural gas to feed circuits. These methods -- relying on fossil fuels -- produce gray, brown, and black hydrogen. Nuclear is considered pink hydrogen, and electric is turquoise. Though used for decades, these colorful methods are considered too inefficient, small-scale, or dirty to be viable, clean energy alternatives in the long term.

Still, the newest and most exciting color in the hydrogen rainbow is green, which is a cleaner way of producing hydrogen using renewables, cyanobacteria, or algae. According to industry experts, it’s impossible to get to “green” hydrogen without mastering the other colors on the spectrum, but green is the goal. Hydrogen power has the potential to be a force in the clean energy sector. However, the method used to produce it will define its effectiveness.

Now This: Company Works on Creating Hydrogen-Powered Planes, August 5, 2021.

WW0: Newsmaker of the Week - Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, September 23, 2021.