Airbus made a big splash this week when it unveiled three zero-emission airplane concepts and said they could be in service by 2035. That sounds bullish when you consider there’s nothing of the sort currently flying aside from a handful of small, mostly experimental aircraft using electric engines. For transporting a meaningful number of passengers, nothing can as yet beat the energy density of jet fuel. But it seems that things are about to change. So how soon will we really be flying on zero-emission airplanes?
Hydrogen leads the way
Airbus is showing off three separate concepts – a turbofan and a turboprop that look fairly conventional alongside a third much more futuristic blended-wing design. All would be powered by hydrogen combustion. Though Airbus is also pursuing battery-powered aircraft, hydrogen is increasingly emerging as a more promising fuel. That’s because hydrogen has a much higher energy density than today’s batteries. It may hold the key if we want to get anywhere near the kind of payload and range we’re used to in larger aircraft.
Hydrogen carries its own challenges, including relatively high costs for storage and delivery (lots of new infrastructure would be needed) and clean production of hydrogen fuel (a process that requires energy). But most of these challenges also have seemingly attainable solutions.
There’s little doubt that aerospace companies like Airbus and others are capable of getting there with the technology eventually. The assumption has been that we’re still many years away, so commercially viable zero-emission aircraft entering service by next decade would be fantastic news. Whether it’s realistic is an open question, but the ambition is commendable.
It’s not just Airbus
There are dozens of other companies, many of them small, working on zero-emission aircraft projects around the world. Some are still wild concepts, while others are more practical and well into their development process.
MagniX, a small aerospace firm with its headquarters in the Seattle area, has been testing an electric engine fitted to a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver seaplane – with promising results so far. And last week the company announced it too would be exploring the potential of hydrogen. That move is in partnership with hydrogen fuel provider Universal Hydrogen, which is developing a hydrogen fuel retrofit kit for the De Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300.
When I spoke with MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski at the Paris Airshow in 2019, he said he expected all flights under 1000 miles (1600 kilomters) long to be flown by electric aircraft within 15 years. What’s more, he pointed out that the cost savings could allow for a huge shift in airline route networks, bringing direct service and economic life back to small communities that are currently mostly bypassed in favor of large cities.
“We’re in the forefront of a new era in aviation, an era that hasn’t really changed since the late 30s when the jet engine was introduced,” Ganzarski said. “That allowed new designs of aircraft, it really changed what was possible, but since then nothing much has happened. There hasn’t been a radical change that then allowed the change of business models. And that’s what this is really about. It’s not about just propulsion, it’s what electric propulsion will enable, which is on demand flying for the masses. It will allow on demand movement of cargo and goods to more than just the metropolitan areas.”
Did someone say airships?
If you thought airships were a technology from 1910 you’d be correct. However there are a number of companies working to update the concept, and the old idea is poised to make a comeback. Though it’s a very different offering than a fixed wing aircraft, what’s interesting is that airships promise incredible efficiency and don’t require much new technology to do so.
OceanSky Cruises, a Swedish company looking to offer leisure cruises on airships within a few years, says airships are up to 90% more efficient than fixed wing aircraft. And instead of hydrogen, new airship designs fly using helium – an inert gas and thus not susceptible to explosions.
Of course with typical cruising speeds around 100 km/h (62 mph), no one is going to be taking business trips in an airship – but for moving heavy equipment and other large cargo, or for scenic flying, the concept has some very interesting potential. Initial models are mostly using hybrid propulsion so wouldn’t be strictly zero-emission – but because they’re so efficient they’re worth including here.
OceanSky is already selling airship cruises to the North Pole, with a current reported price of €87,000. The only problem is the airship itself isn’t ready yet – they’re looking to Hybrid Air Vehicles, which has built a full-scale prototype, to deliver in time. But not to worry, they’re promising to refund the deposit if they don’t manage to set sail by 2024.