Are Hydrogen Powered Passenger Planes A Realistic Solution?

As more and more companies test the viability of hydrogen power, we ask the question: is it a realistic solution? From structural developments to emissions and cost, hydrogen power does look promising, and yet some things still need to change. Will we ever see hydrogen-powered planes take to our skies?

2 commercial jets fly with contrails
Hydrogen planes are cleaner for the atmosphere. Photo: Getty Images

The carbon footprint remedy

It’s no secret that the airline industry is looking for a way to remedy its carbon footprint. With CORSIA commitments and a general shift towards making business more sustainable, more and more companies are cropping up with greener jet fuel offerings.

The debate surrounding hydrogen-powered planes has been around for a while. It was previously thought that hydrogen batteries were simply too heavy ever to be a viable solution. However, many companies are now making it their mission to produce a workaround. 

Let’s start by taking a look at precisely what hydrogen-powered planes are.

Boeing hydrogen battery
Attempts at hydrogen aircraft have taken off at Boeing, but is it viable for passenger aircraft? Photo: Getty Images

How do hydrogen-powered planes work?

Hydrogen is abundant within our atmosphere, making the thought of hydrogen-powered planes a very attractive proposal. It’s the reason why the industry has been debating it for years. Yet, the science behind perfecting a fully hydrogen-powered plane is yet to materialize.

That’s not to say that tests haven’t been made.

Planes that run on hydrogen get their power from compressed liquid hydrogen. The process works by combining hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell, and the reaction of these two elements produces three by-products:

  • water
  • heat
  • and crucially – electricity

The difference with this process compared to burning fossil fuels is that no CO2 is released into the atmosphere. As a result, hydrogen planes are more eco-friendly and would allow airlines to make good on their commitments to carbon-neutral growth.

Malaysia Airlines with contrails
Unlike standard fuel, hydrogen planes only produce water vapor as an emission. Photo: Getty Images

What is the benefit?

The benefit, of course, is that hydrogen fuel cells drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the aviation industry. It would mean fewer CO2 emissions produced in our atmosphere, but there are other added benefits too.

Not only would hydrogen planes reduce air pollution, but they would also reduce noise too. Furthermore, the abundance of hydrogen in our atmosphere is a significant pull considering we will eventually deplete fossil fuel stores. In that sense, hydrogen power is a more sustainable investment in the future.

There are several companies right now behind the hydrogen-powered vision who are attempting to make these aircraft a reality. They’re challenging the restrictiveness of hydrogen fuel supplies and how aircraft use them.

E-Fan X
Airbus was looking at hydrogen supplies for its hybrid aircraft. Photo: Airbus

Making hydrogen fuel more accessible

One of the significant drawbacks of hydrogen fuel is the fact that there is no infrastructure at the moment to make it a viable alternative to fossil fuels. It’s easy for airlines to refuel their aircraft with standard kerosene, which is a hindrance to the development of sustainable options. For hydrogen power to become a reality, that needs to change.

There are currently plans underway to develop Europe’s first commercial plant for hydrogen-based aviation fuel. The project is being led by Norsk e-Fuel, a consortium of four companies looking to create the technology that should fit with existing infrastructure. The joint venture between Sunfire, Valinor, Climeworks, and Paul Wurth (SMS Group) hopes that the plant will be in operation from 2023.

In three short years from now, the plant will offer a maximum capacity of 10 million liters of hydrogen-based jet fuel. In the ensuing three years, Norsk e-Fuel will produce 100 million liters of hydrogen fuel for commercial aviation.

aircraft refueling
Norsk e-Fuel’s plant will be ready to replace standard jet fuel by 2023. Photo: Getty Images

The consortium is undoubtedly ambitious, but its motives are not unfounded. In a statement shared with Simple Flying, the Georges Rassel, CEO of Paul Wurth shared,

“Climate change and rising costs for CO2 emissions result in a growing market for renewable solutions. This new project holds broad possibilities for Norway and Europe, offering the key to a deeper decarbonization than has ever been possible before.

“The energy transition is already progressing quickly in consumer-facing sectors – it is time for the industry to step up and bring technologies to scale to decarbonize the sectors that power our societies behind the scenes.” 

Too good to be true?

Despite all the positivity and benefits of hydrogen power, there are significant drawbacks.

For one, it is unclear exactly how hydrogen power can be best used in aircraft. If used directly, it would mean fewer alterations to aircraft since they would not need a hydrogen fuel cell. The advantage of the hydrogen fuel cell is that it is more efficient. However, it does require significant changes to aircraft fuel storage as well as heavier take-off weight. Either way, adjustments would need to be made to ensure that aircraft could still operate their regular schedules and capacity with this sustainable alternative.

jet fuel tanker
How will aircraft refuel with hydrogen in the future? Photo: Getty Images

Designing a lightweight, hydrogen compatible aircraft is an issue. Refueling is another. Without a significant global interest in investing in hydrogen technology, airlines’ operational efficiency will be compromised. Where they fly will be dictated and limited to where they can refuel and how far the hydrogen power will take them.

Are airlines ready to invest?

Although airlines are aware of their environmental commitments, investing in hydrogen power does require a leap of faith. Since the dawn of air travel, fossil fuels have been the only consistent way to power aircraft. While change needs to happen, what price does it come at?

Norsk e-Fuel says that its latest development would work alongside existing infrastructure. However, the cost is not the same. Since this renewable fuel requires so much renewable electricity to produce, the process is expensive. When operating small margins, cost efficiency is vital for airlines. Standard fuels will simply look more attractive on a balance sheet.

Southwest refuel
Until the cost and infrastructure are there, traditional fuels will seem more attractive. Photo: Getty Images

That’s not to say that airlines shouldn’t or aren’t interested in investing. It’s more a case of the technology developing enough that it becomes more attractive. That would include being cheaper to buy as well as more readily available and compatible. Until that point, airlines will likely invest in other sustainable technologies to drive down their carbon emissions.

So, are hydrogen-powered planes realistic?

Hydrogen-powered passenger planes are realistic

Hydrogen-powered passenger planes are realistic. Just not yet.

There is considerable interest within the sustainability sector to help the aviation industry move towards its green goals. So much energy would not have been invested if it was not thought possible.

Climeworks demonstration
Companies like Climeworks have invested a lot of time to perfect their technologies. Photo: TRx340 via Wikimedia Commons

That said, it still seems like hydrogen-powered planes are a long way off. Not only does the infrastructure need to be built, but it also needs to be tested and then proposed as an economic initiative.

Some of the most educated guesses suggest that 2040 will be the year that electric and hydrogen planes take off. Do you agree?

Have your say in the comments.