Sustainable Energy

Airbus announces concept designs for zero-emission, hydrogen-powered airplanes

Key Points
  • All designs are meant to be zero-emission, using hydrogen as their primary source of power.
  • Land-based forms of transport are already using hydrogen fuel cell technology. 
This conceptual image shows how the airplanes might look when in flight.

European aerospace giant Airbus released details of three hydrogen-fueled concept planes on Monday, saying they could enter service by the year 2035. The designs, named ZEROe, differ in size and style, but are all meant to be zero-emission, using hydrogen as their primary source of power.

They include an aircraft that would use turbofan engines and carry between 120 and 200 passengers. With a range of more than 2,000 nautical miles, it would be powered using what the company described as "a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen, rather than jet fuel, through combustion." According to the designs, liquid hydrogen would be stored behind the rear pressure bulkhead, at the back of the plane.

Another design, using turboprop engines, would also be powered using modified gas-turbine engines, have a range of over 1,000 nautical miles, but carry fewer passengers.

A third design offers a radical vision of how airplanes could look in the years ahead. Carrying as many as 200 passengers, the "blended-wing body" concept would see wings "merge" with the aircraft's main body. 

"I strongly believe that the use of hydrogen – both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft – has the potential to significantly reduce aviation's climate impact," Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said in a statement.

"These concepts will help us explore and mature the design and layout of the world's first climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft, which we aim to put into service by 2035."

Hydrogen's potential

While the widespread adoption of hydrogen power in aircraft is still some way off, land-based forms of transport are already using the technology, albeit on a small scale. Hydrogen buses have been introduced to the U.K. capital of London, for example.

Elsewhere, European firm Alstom has developed the Coradia iLint, a train that harnesses fuel-cell technology to turn oxygen and hydrogen into electricity. According to the company, it can reach speeds of up to 140 kilometers per hour (87 miles per hour), is low-noise and "emits only steam and water."

Within aviation, a number of low- and zero-emission planes have taken to the skies in recent years. In June, a battery-electric airplane flew over England in a trip described as the U.K.'s "first commercial-scale electric flight."

Meanwhile in May, a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan aircraft with a 750-horsepower all-electric motor completed its maiden flight, after taking off from an airport in Moses Lake, Washington.

Other examples of innovative planes include the Solar Impulse 2, a manned aircraft powered by the sun. In 2016 it managed to circumnavigate the globe without using fuel, although the trip was completed in 17 separate legs.