Airbus Bets Big On Hydrogen

Airbus announced today that in order to accelerate the introduction of its zero-emission hydrogen-powered concept ZEROe, it is launching two dedicated Zero-Emission Development Centres in France and Germany. The centers will develop and assemble tanks for liquid hydrogen. They are meant to be fully operational by 2023, with a first test flight scheduled for 2025.

Airbus Bets Big On Hydrogen
Airbus has opened two new Zero-Emission Development Centres to facilitate the acceleration of hydrogen-powered flight. Photo: Airbus

When Airbus revealed its vision for zero-emission flight in September last year, all three ZEROe concept aircraft were powered by hydrogen. The three different versions of the planes each explored a different aerodynamic approach and varying cabin layouts and options for storing the hydrogen onboard.

In order to facilitate the speedy development of these hydrogen-propulsion technologies, Airbus has decided to launch a complementary project. This will focus on the design and integration of the hydrogen tanks.

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Cost-competitive cryogenic tanks

In order to accelerate progress on a switch towards the clean-burning fuel source, lauded by many as one of the keys to decarbonizing aviation, the planemaker has decided to establish two Zero-Emission Development Centres (ZEDC). Airbus shared the following in a statement on Monday,

“The goal of the ZEDC is to achieve cost-competitive cryogenic tank manufacturing to support the successful future market launch of ZEROe and to accelerate the development of hydrogen-propulsion technologies. The design and integration of tank structures is crucial to the performance of a future hydrogen aircraft.”

One ZEDC will be at Airbus’ facilities in Nantes, France. The other is to be located in Bremen, Germany. Both are set to be fully operational by 2023, with a first test flight with the tank intended for 2025.

Airbus Hydrogen
Airbus has chosen the sites for the centers due to their expertise in hydrogen and safety-critical tanks. Photo: Airbus

Building on existing expertise

Airbus further stated that the technology developments at the sites would include everything from the full product. This means elementary parts, assembly, systems integration, and the final cryogenic testing of the liquid hydrogen (LH2) system.

The site in Bremen has been chosen due to its extensive experience with liquid hydrogen for Airbus’ Defence and Space branch. Meanwhile, the planemaker chose to locate its second ZEDC in Nantes because of its expertise in metallic structuralization related to the center wing box, particularly the safety-critical center tank for Airbus’ commercial aircraft.

Airbus ZEROe pod engine concept
Airbus will need to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it will be safe to power aircraft with hydrogen. Photo: Airbus

Safety first

One of the greatest challenges with a transition to hydrogen is how to store the gas. Even though hydrogen has an energy density per unit that is three times greater than conventional jet fuel, storing it as compressed gas presents tremendous challenges related to weight and volume. Hence the focus on liquid hydrogen, or LH2, as the most promising option.

Other than storage, convincing the world about the safety of hydrogen-powered flight may be one the biggest task for would-be LH2 pioneers. Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al Baker is among the skeptics and is calling instead for investment in other technologies.

For much of the broader public, when aircraft and hydrogen are mentioned in the same sentence, it unequivocally conjures up images of the Hindenburg crashing spectacularly, engulfed in a sea of flames. While today’s technology is a far cry from that of the airships of the early 20th century, public perception and prejudice are not so easily swayed.

How do you feel about flying with hydrogen fuel tanks? Will you trust the technology right out of the gate, or will you need a few years to get used to the idea once it launches in earnest? Leave a comment below and let us know.