The future of hydrogen as a green fuel source is very promising, especially in aviation. It has long been recognised this would be one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise because of the high energy density required for aviation fuel.
Currently, the commercial aviation industry accounts for more than 2.8% of global emissions, while commercial flights produce 12% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the transport sector. Unfortunately, these numbers are multiplying as governments and corporations alike struggle to find a viable alternative.
Today, recent advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology offer the first pathway to reaching zero emissions in the aviation industry. As hydrogen is the most plentiful resource on the planet every country can produce, it is fast becoming seen as the best solution for transitioning air travel to a carbon-free model.
The fuel source already has a proven track record transforming both the automotive and energy sectors.
How Do Hydrogen Planes Work?
There are currently two ways in which hydrogen could be used to power aircraft propulsion.
The first is through direct combustion in hydrogen-based jet engines. This approach would require minimal changes to an existing aircraft’s gas turbines, allowing hydrogen to be burned directly to generate the power needed for flight. This technique would result in zero carbon emissions but still produce some nitrogen oxide emissions.
Recently, there have been great leaps of development in fuel cell technology, making them leading options for carbon-free air travel. The hydrogen fuel cell works by creating a chemical reaction from combining hydrogen and oxygen. The energy produced from this is used to generate electricity to power the aircraft. The only by-product of this process is water.
Many of the current plans for building hydrogen-powered planes involve a hybrid of direct combustion and fuel cell technology. This would significantly reduce the emissions generated by the aviation industry.
Once proven to be scalable, the uptake of this technology will be quick, as it involves converting a traditional aircraft to a hydrogen run system. This means significant players in the industry will be much more likely to embrace hydrogen because the infrastructure already exists — meaning new aeroplanes do not need to be made.
Through engine modification, we can save billions of dollars and streamline the journey to true decarbonising.
The Future of Hydrogen-Powered Aviation
With mounting government interest in reducing carbon emissions and reaching net-zero by 2050, the development of commercial hydrogen aircraft is sure to be an exciting race over the next few years. As a result, hydrogen-powered, large commercial passenger planes are likely to be flying through our airspace by as early as 2035.
There is no doubt that there is a wide range of competition in this market as start-ups and aviation giants vie to develop the technology of the future. However, there is one thing they all seem to agree on, the importance of hydrogen in driving the decarbonisation of aviation.
It is estimated that the hydrogen aircraft market was worth $US143 million in 2020, which is forecasted to grow rapidly to US$174.02 billion by 2040. Experts predict that this market’s compound annual growth rate will be around 28.9% from 2025 to 2030, meaning it will reach US$27.68 billion by the end of this period.
With pioneers working on the technology to support hydrogen aviation and substantial government investment, there is no question that this gas will be the fuel of the future for the aviation industry.
The Benefits of Green Hydrogen Fuelled Aviation
- Zero carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft.
- A 30-50% decrease in the global warming effects from condensation trails produced by aeroplanes.
- A 50-75% reduction in climate impact from flights powered by direct hydrogen combustion.
- A 75-90% reduction in climate impact from flights powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
- It is an extremely high-density energy source with three times more energy potential per unit than traditional aviation fuel making it much more cost-effective.