Liquid hydrogen jet paves way for 'guilt-free' long-haul travel

Researchers hope zero-carbon plane will be able to fly non-stop across the Atlantic

An artist's impression of a liquid hydrogen-powered plane that is being developed by British researchers. PA

British researchers have unveiled concept designs for a liquid hydrogen-powered plane.

The government-backed Aerospace Technology Institute said hydrogen turbines and minus 250°C fuel tanks were part of its proposals for a zero-carbon jet.

It raises the prospect of direct hydrogen-powered flights across the Atlantic, or just one refuelling stop needed for journeys from the UK to Australia and New Zealand.

The proposal was welcomed by UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who said: “Guilt-free flying is one step closer today”.

“This pioneering design for a liquid hydrogen-powered aircraft, led by a British organisation, brings us one step closer to a future where people can continue to travel and connect but without the carbon footprint,” he said.

Air travel is responsible for about 2 to 3 per cent of global carbon emissions, but driving down such pollution is a formidable challenge.

Experiments with hydrogen and electric-powered planes have focused on small-seater, short-range aircraft.

Some air industry figures believe the path to net zero emissions lies in carbon capture or so-called sustainable aviation fuel, which is made from biomass.

But the institute said its prototype design could carry 279 people on a hydrogen-powered plane, with detailed proposals set to be put forward early next year.

It said the project “demonstrates the huge potential of green liquid hydrogen”, as it is known when it is produced from sustainable sources. Blue or grey hydrogen comes from fossil fuels.

Hydrogen produces only water when it is burnt as a fuel, but storing it as a liquid requires extremely low temperatures.

These would be provided in hydrogen tanks in the fuselage of the aircraft, which would not store fuel in its wings.

Green incentives

Researchers said there were growing incentives to develop cleaner aircraft as the push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions becomes more urgent.

“Big technological challenges exist to realise green liquid hydrogen-powered flight but there is a growing incentive and reward involved in resolving these,” the institute said.

“And with other sectors also moving towards hydrogen energy, an increased demand is expected to lead to lower supply costs.”

The institute did not set a date for when hydrogen planes would take to the air. The EU last week suggested this could happen in the next decade.

Global airlines set a target in October of net zero emissions by 2050, a strategy largely reliant on sustainable aviation fuels.

It echoed the targets set by many industrialised countries as the centrepiece of the climate promises they made at the Cop26 summit.

Updated: December 6th 2021, 1:52 PM