Airbus & Sustainability – What The Future Holds

Airbus has been showing its determination to research and develop modern technologies to enable zero-emission aircraft. The manufacturer has also been investing in key areas such as sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and smart air traffic management solutions. With this decade set to be a crucial one in the ramp-up of sustainable activity, Simple Flying caught up with Julien Franiatte, Head of Airbus Russia, to talk about what to expect from his firm in this sector.

ZEROe Concepts
Airbus’ research and development team has been working to aid in the development of hybrid-electric engines, alternative fuels, and hydrogen technologies. Photo: Airbus

A grand proposal

Last year, Airbus revealed three concept aircraft, currently going by the moniker of ZEROe. With this program, Airbus is looking to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.

Franiatte shares that with this project, Airbus is presently looking at numerous propulsion-system technologies, including hydrogen combustion in modified gas-turbine engines, hydrogen fuel cells, and cryogenic storage of hydrogen in insulated tanks. He adds that the company’s final decision will be made when the selected technology’s maturity reaches a suitable level, which is expected to be in the middle of this decade. Thus, Airbus is expecting to officially launch the program between 2026 and 2028.

The three planes would all rely on hydrogen as their primary fuel source. However, there will still be a role for SAF in the coming decades. This is because it is probable that long-range planes will rely on these fuels while hydrogen operations continue to mature. Nonetheless, future SAF could potentially be made from hydrogen-based sources. While the likes of Boeing have been a little more pedantic when it comes to hydrogen in the near term, Airbus has plenty of faith in its potential.

Airbus SAF
SAF initiatives go hand in hand with incentives for fleet renewal, similar to patterns in the automobile industry. Photo: Airbus

The three concepts

So, the ZEROe concepts are primarily focused on short and medium-haul services. Airbus is currently studying ranges that enable intracontinental travel. With Franiatte being the head of the company’s activity in Russia, he is excited to bring such a solution to connect passengers across the vast and diverse land of the nation.

Two of the designs are based on familiar airframes. The smaller turboprop concept has a capacity of 100 passengers and has a range of 1,000 NM (1,850 km). Meanwhile, the larger turbofan is being studied with a capacity of up to 200 passengers and a range of up to 2,000 NM (3,700 km).

The third concept looks a little more futuristic. It is being analyzed with a blended wing design and would allow more opportunities for hydrogen storage and distribution.

Airbus Toulouse
Airbus backs ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) as the sole worldwide market-based measure for global aviation.  Photo: Airbus

Recognizing the challenges

While there has been considerable progress with the sustainability efforts, there have been some challenges, as expected. For instance, there still needs to be a greater understanding of the technology involved. Furthermore, there have been reports that SAF is too expensive for ultra-low-cost carriers across the globe. Therefore, there is still work to be done in this department.

“With SAF, the main challenge remains the emergence of a market to generalise the use of SAF. There is still a lot of work to do to encourage its uptake, which represents 0.03% of fuel use and less than 1% of operated flights (2020). Incentives and long-term policies that encourage SAF use will be essential in this respect. The major challenge in Russia will be certification. Here if you blend standard kerosine with SAF, this is no longer considered a proper fuel for an aircraft and needs additional certification,” Franiatte told Simple Flying.

“To meet this challenge Airbus gathered key industry stakeholders during the panel discussion ‘Decarbonisation’ which took place in Russia during the MAKS aerospace show to discuss what solutions the industry already has and how we can make these solutions available throughout the entire aviation supply chain. As per ZEROe one of the key challenges is availability of green hydrogen to fuel future aircraft.

“Airbus has been carefully observing the hydrogen ecosystem and we are excited by the incredible progress. Another challenge will be to certify the new technologies to airworthiness standards. Although hydrogen is a well- known molecule and several industries already use it for various purposes, commercial aviation will need to create the specific rules and regulations for operating hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft.”

Airbus SAF
Airbus has already made great progress when it comes to SAF, but there is no room for complacency. Photo: Airbus

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The wider mission

Altogether, Airbus is keen to tackle sustainability factors from all angles. Notably, all of the company’s research and design is focused on fostering aircraft efficiency. Therefore, over $2.3 billion a year is spent on efforts that can help with reducing aircraft emissions. The company highlights that it has made a commitment with its counterparts to halve aviation emissions in 2050 against 2005 and in parallel to reduce noise by 65%.

A321XLR Plane
Airbus notes that aircraft in its flagship families will also play a major role due to their increased efficiency compared to previous generations. Photo: Airbus

The wider aviation market has created a decarbonization roadmap to achieve its ambitious targets in reducing its carbon emissions. It seeks to achieve net-zero aviation emissions between 2050 and 2060 in collaboration with other stakeholders. With these ambitions, Airbus is determined to meet the Paris Agreement targets and wants to be a leader in the decarbonization of the aviation industry.

Franiatte concludes that his company is convinced that carbon-neutral aviation is not only possible but achievable within our lifetime. So, aircraft such as ZEROe will be crucial for Airbus to reach these goals. Altogether, the firm is developing a multifaceted climate-impact program for commercial aircraft. Here, air traffic management, sustainable aviation fuels, and market-based measures will combine to achieve these missions.

What are your thoughts about Airbus’ sustainability initiatives? What do you make of the company’s efforts in this field? Let us know what you think of the overall prospects of reducing emissions in the aviation industry in the comment section.