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Hydrogen aircraft: the new frontier with entry into service by 2035?

Mid-September, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury revealed the group is to develop a new generation of aircraft that would rely on hydrogen as the primary power source.

The European aircraft manufacturer is in fact working on three new hydrogen aircraft concepts, and could implement the programme around 2028. These concepts each represent a different approach to achieving zero-emission flight, exploring various technology pathways and aerodynamic configurations (notably hydrogen storage and propulsion systems). In terms of the timetable for implementing the programme, it will take around five years to explore, mature and choose the design, and two years to select the suppliers and choose the industrial sites. If everything proceeds per this indicative timetable, the new hydrogen aircraft could be brought into service around 2035. The announcement by Airbus comes after the French government stated its ambition to develop a carbon-neutral aircraft. This announcement also comes after the French government unveiled on 9 September a €7bn plan to support the development of hydrogen by the end of this decade as part of the “France 2030” economic recovery plan. This plan is aimed at developing the competitive production of carbon-free hydrogen in France, as well as its use in the industrial and transport sectors. In this respect, while hydrogen will in theory enable fossil fuels in the transport sector to be replaced by a carbon-neutral power source at the point of combustion, hydrogen’s lifecycle is not “green” per se.

Everything depends on just how this hydrogen is produced: water electrolysis using electricity produced by renewable and/or nuclear power plants would indeed lead to the supply of carbon-neutral hydrogen, but this technology is currently far costlier than the production of hydrogen using fossil fuels, which is obviously far from being low carbon. With this in mind, France’s economic recovery plan includes measures to support the production of hydrogen using water electrolysis relying on green energies (wind, solar) as well as (implicitly) nuclear energy.