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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Aiming High In The Sky With Hydrogen

Aviation is now the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Given the projected rise of passenger air travel, commercial aircraft emissions could easily triple by 2050. Startups such as ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen are testing hydrogen-fueled electric powertrains and have become major powerhouses along with Delta Airlines to push the newest advancement in the ongoing effort towards sustainable aviation.

Hydrogen is less flammable than its traditionally used counterpart — aviation fuel. The compounds that are released into the air when aviation fuel is used, have two to four times the impact on our climate than any ground-source emission such as cars, trains, or boats. Hydrogen doesn’t release the same harmful compounds in the atmosphere. Even more exciting, this hydrogen-electric aviation provides up to 30 times more energy and lower cycling costs than lithium-ion batteries. This, along with many other advantages, possibly make it one of the first scalable technologies.

Right now, this new exciting technology is being used for smaller planes. Delta Air Lines teamed up with Airbus, the largest aircraft manufacturer world-wide, to create a hydrogen-powered passenger plane and address how this fuel will be stored at airports. 

ZeroAvia announced they hope to provide commercial operators and aircraft manufacturers with this new technology to get 500-mile regional flights in 10 to 20-seat fixed-wing aircraft up in the air this year in Washington. Boeing has developed a cryogenic fuel tank to be used for space launches that could have the capability to store liquid hydrogen on commercial aircraft. ZeroAvia is starting with 500-mile flights to be of service to the short-haul and commuter air travel markets which make up almost 50% of commercial flights worldwide. Beyond passenger planes, the ZeroAvia powertrain could be used for cargo, an air taxi, agriculture as well as manned and unmanned aircraft, fixed wing, rotorcraft and more. 

The United States has great potential to be a driving force in the future hydrogen market with their ability to build solar, wind and renewable energy to produce large quantities of hydrogen. By 2035, liquid “green” hydrogen is forecasted to be one-quarter cheaper to produce in the U.S. than the European Union ICCT researchers say. Despite this, without a policy limiting carbon dioxide emissions, hydrogen is still projected to cost twice as much as traditional jet-fuel. Still, the main focus for airlines currently, is how to narrow the gap between supply and future demand for hydrogen.

Another ever growing question on air lines minds is how to get hydrogen fuel to airports and eventually into their planes. Some believe the answer is pipeline networks and refueling hoses. Universal Hydrogen suggests portable capsules that collect fuel from electrolyzer plants, are transported via freight truck or train to then be unloaded into an aircraft. They announced that they will be developing a $254 million manufacturing facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico to produce both composite gaseous hydrogen capsules which can be used in fuel-cell powertrains, and cryogenic pods for liquid hydrogen to be used in combustion engines.

There are still many questions to be answered but airlines are already doing what they can to curb some emissions such as combining their jet fuel with small amounts of what they call “Sustainable Aviation Fuels” or, SAFs, which are made of cooking oils and animal fats. With so many exciting new technologies on the horizon for aviation, the possibility of a green travel experience is becoming more tangible by the minute. It is thrilling to see air lines already taking advantage of some of the opportunities out there to make their companies greener.


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