Airbus to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine

Company plans to launch zero-emission aircraft called ZEROe in the '2027-2028 time frame'

Fuel-cell engines could power a 100-passenger aircraft with a range of about 1,000 nautical miles, Airbus says. Photo: Airbus
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Airbus is developing a fuel-cell engine as part of wider plans for a hydrogen-powered aircraft that is scheduled to enter service by 2035.

Fuel cells are a potential solution to help the company achieve its zero-emission ambition, said Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of zero-emission aircraft at Airbus.

"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-emission aircraft,” he said.

“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 1,000 nautical miles.”

The global aviation industry is under mounting pressure to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. Toulouse, France-based Airbus, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, is betting that hydrogen-powered planes could be the answer for zero-emissions flying.

Airbus said it will start ground and flight tests of its fuel-cell engine architecture on board its ZEROe demonstrator aircraft towards the middle of the decade.

The plane maker plans to launch the hydrogen-powered aircraft, called ZEROe, in the “2027-2028 time frame”, Mr Llewellyn said.

The A380 MSN1 flight test aircraft for new hydrogen technologies is currently being modified to carry liquid hydrogen tanks and their associated distribution systems.

“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,” Mr Llewellyn said.

This is the first time that Airbus has expanded into developing engine-related technology.

An illustration of the Airbus hydrogen fuel-cell demonstration engine. Photo: Airbus

During a two-day sustainability summit that began on Wednesday, Airbus also said that it would work with European rocket maker ArianeGroup to build a liquid hydrogen refuelling plant for its ZEROe aircraft at Blagnac airport in Toulouse.

The refuelling station will be operational in 2025, allowing it to refuel the A380 demonstrator aircraft as part of its ZEROe programme, it said.

“Many of the technologies required for a zero-emission aircraft are already available in other industries, and liquid hydrogen handling is no exception,” said Sabine Klauke, chief technical officer at Airbus.

“Preparing for the entry into service of a zero-emission aircraft in 2035 means that we need to mature all of the required technologies in parallel. By partnering with ArianeGroup, we will leverage well-known hydrogen expertise and other relevant space technologies in the pursuit of this goal.”

Airbus also signed an agreement with Hyport to support the development of a low-carbon hydrogen production and distribution station at Toulouse-Blagnac airport.

Construction of the hydrogen station was completed earlier this year and the production, storage and distribution systems are currently undergoing final testing, it said.

The station, which is slated to enter into service in early 2023, will have the capacity to produce about 400 kilograms of hydrogen per day, which can power approximately 50 ground transportation vehicles.

Airbus is working with HyPort to expand hydrogen-fuelled ground operations at airports to cope with the expected increase in hydrogen demand in the coming years.

“Using hydrogen to decarbonise all airport-associated ground transport in the 2020 to 2030 time frame will pave the way for hydrogen availability for zero-emission aircraft by 2035,” Karine Guenan, vice president of ZEROe ecosystem at Airbus, said.

Updated: December 01, 2022, 10:35 AM