Aircraft, cargo ships and large-scale freight are seen by many as the last bastion for hydrocarbons. However, this could be about to change with Airbus recently announcing its plans to test hydrogen-powered jet engines on its A380 superjumbo and bring it into service by 2035. Hydrogen will play a crucial role in transforming a difficult to decarbonise sector such as aviation into a zero-carbon system in the coming few decades. However, Airbus still has a long road ahead despite these ambitious goals.
The collaboration between CFM International, the joint venture (JV) between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines, and Airbus comes at a time when companies in all economic sectors and geographies are under mounting pressure to decarbonise their operations and reach net-zero carbon emissions. For some industries, this is a relatively straightforward challenge to overcome. However, for others, it presents a considerable technological challenge. The aerospace sector is a case in point, accounting for 2.4% of global emissions.
Hydrogen has significant potential. It can be produced in a carbon-free way and, when used as a fuel, only produces water, allowing for zero-emission transportation. It also has significant energy potential since it is much more energy-dense and considerably lighter than its main competitor, battery power.
Hydrogen infrastructure remains a pain point
Despite the promising outlook for hydrogen, there is still a significant journey ahead. In the coming years, the expansion of hydrogen infrastructure will need to become a key priority for Airbus to commercialize a fleet of hydrogen-powered aircraft. The use of hydrogen as an aviation fuel will require a significant supply chain overhaul, requiring increased hydrogen production capacity and supply lines for its transport.
So far, in 2022, Airbus has agreed to undertake a feasibility study for establishing a hydrogen hub at Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN) alongside the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and industrial gas company Linde. Airbus has also entered a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Sea, the company that manages Milano Linate (LIN) and Milano Malpensa (MXP) airports, to study and execute projects for the distribution of hydrogen at Milan’s airports.
The wheels begin to turn for green hydrogen projects
Hydrogen produced through electrolysis using renewable energy is the main way to produce green hydrogen. Currently, green hydrogen only accounts for 1% of all hydrogen produced. This will need to change to support fleets of zero-carbon aircraft.
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Low-carbon hydrogen is expected to gather momentum in the coming decades, with green and blue hydrogen production approaches gaining prominence in both the public and private sectors. Many countries have set targets for setting up green hydrogen capacities in the next five to 20 years. The EU announced that it will increase its green hydrogen capacity to 80GW by 2030 and several other European countries have also made green hydrogen capacity addition announcements around that timeframe. In Asia, Japan and South Korea plan to increase their green hydrogen capacities to 15GW by 2040 and India plans to produce five million tonnes of green hydrogen a year by 2030.
Furthermore, technological advancements in wind power such as larger wind turbines and longer wind turbine rotor blades, along with the increasing efficiency of solar PV cells, would prove beneficial for green hydrogen project deployments. The costs of new solar PV projects have fallen below $1,000 per kWh, while the average costs of new wind projects have fallen to about $1,400 per kWh. This improves the levelised costs of green hydrogen projects. Hydrogen fuel cell technology remains a promising technology and momentum is on its side, however, it is a long way from large-scale commercial application. Formulating a cost-effective and well-regulated transition is a complex issue and the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable energy sources is currently expensive. Now is the time to scale up low-carbon technologies and lower their costs, so that hydrogen technology can be widely utilised.