Sustainable Energy

Hydrogen fuel cells… on a plane?

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Lucas Schifres | Getty Images AsiaPac | Getty Images

European airline easyJet unveiled its plans for a zero emissions hydrogen fuel system on Tuesday, which it says could save about 50,000 tons of fuel per year.

The concept is based around the idea of stowing a hydrogen fuel cell in the hold of the aircraft.

The zero emissions system would capture energy when the aircraft brakes during landing, and would then charge lightweight batteries while the aircraft is on the ground.

The aircraft could then use this clean energy while taxiing, negating the need to use its conventional jet engines. The only waste product would be water, which could in turn be used in the aircraft's water system.

The idea is in part inspired by research being done by students at Cranfield University.

"The hybrid plane concept we are announcing today is both a vision of the future and a challenge to our partners and suppliers to continue to push the boundaries towards reducing our carbon emissions," Ian Davies, head of engineering at easyJet, said in a release.

"It's also a great example of the benefits of our strategic relationship with Cranfield University," Davies added.

"We are delighted to be working on this project with easyJet on what is a real-world example of how we can innovate together," Craig Lawson, a lecturer at Cranfield University's Center for Aeronautics, said.

According to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), more than 3.1 billion people took to the skies in 2013.

ATAG states that aviation is responsible for 12 percent of CO2 emissions from transport sources.

It is within this context that airlines are looking at innovative ways to lessen their environmental impact.

In May 2014, for example, Dutch airline KLM launched a series of transatlantic flights from Amsterdam to Aruba and Bonaire. During these flights, an Airbus A330-200 was powered by a mixture of fossil fuels and sustainable biofuel.