When speaking to reporters during Airbus’s “Pioneering Sustainable Aerospace” summit in September, company CEO Guillaume Faury revealed he dreams of having people over for dinner from all over the world, flying thousands of kilometers comfortably, safely, and with no impact on rivers or mountains. No CO2, no contrails, no NOx. “Global warming is a global challenge, we need to go fast,” he stressed.
Faury acknowledged the discomfiting general perception that aviation has been slow in addressing its effect on climate change while adding that “a learning of the Covid-19 crisis has been our incredible ability to find solutions in the face of challenges.” The pandemic has not eased societal or regulatory pressure to curb emissions; in some regions it has even intensified—particularly in Europe. Environmental sustainability now ranks at the top of the industry’s agenda, he asserted.
Airbus (Stand 1050) is pulling all its levers to decarbonize air transport, and its vast team of 5,000 engineers across the group’s divisions is exploring multiple technologies and pathways; some are truly game-changing—such as building a hydrogen-powered airliner or designing a wing that will be able to adapt its shape, span, and surface during flight. Others involve enhancements to existing technologies, and others are features that occur as a function of today’s circular economy, such as carpet made entirely from recycled waste. Such material already appears on the A350-900 Airspace Explorer, a specially configured A350 testbed for demonstrating new cabin technologies, and has passed all the regulatory tests for use on commercial airliners.
The European aerospace group continues working on a concept for hydrogen-powered airliners, and Faury called getting them into commercial service in time to meet its previously stated goal of 2035 a “fair and realistic perspective.”
“The credibility of the 2035 entry into service is high and higher every day,” he said, while cautioning that “collaboration is absolutely critical.” That suggests the need for support of regulators and authorities certifying new forms of energy and the aircraft using them and the cooperation of energy producers and infrastructure providers. “Having the right fuels, at the right time, at the right place, at the right price,” remains a major consideration, he explained.
To prepare for the use of hydrogen at airports, Airbus has forged several partnerships—mainly across Europe. It is partnering with French industrial gas solutions and technologies company Air Liquide and airport operator Vinci Airports to analyze the possibility of equipping Vinci's European network of 25 airports with the hydrogen production, storage, and supply facilities needed for use on the ground and on aircraft. France’s Lyon-Saint Exupery Airport will serve as the pilot location for the project and will receive a hydrogen gas distribution station in 2023 to supply both the airport's ground vehicles and those of its partners. This first phase will test the airport's facilities and dynamics as a “hydrogen hub.” Air Liquide and Airbus already cooperate in the Ariane space program and share responsibility for the launch vehicles' liquid hydrogen and oxygen storage tanks, from their design to their integration.
Airbus has also signed agreements with three airlines—European budget carrier EasyJet, SAS Scandinavian Airlines, and Air New Zealand—to study infrastructure needs for future hydrogen-powered aircraft.
Under a project called Zero E, Airbus revealed three concepts for possible hydrogen-powered airliners in September 2020. The airframer believes it will take about five years to develop and mature the technology and it expects to decide on the most suitable hydrogen technology platform in 2024 or 2025. However, one design already seems to be losing traction. The unusual concept showing a blended wing airframe received the most public coverage, though it has the least chance to materialize, divulged Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus vice president for zero emissions.
Even if a hydrogen-powered Airbus airliner takes to the skies in 2035 it will in the first phase apply only to regional and short-haul flying. “It will be a long time before we see hydrogen-powered planes dominate the fleet,” chief commercial officer Christian Scherer said.
“We will see sustainable aviation fuel for several decades for long-haul [flights],” added chief technology officer Sabine Klauke.
Faury admitted to his frustration with the lack of scale and availability of SAF. All Airbus models are certified to fly with a 50/50 blend and the airframer aims for 100 percent SAF certification by 2030, said Klauke. A test flight earlier this year with an A350 burning 100 percent SAF proved successful and Airbus plans a similar test flight with an A320neo in cooperation with CFM International, the manufacturer of the Leap-1A engines that power the A320neo family, later this year or early next year, she said. But the uplift of SAF by airlines globally remains under 1 percent of their total fuel usage. Operators have signed SAF commitments totaling 6.3 billion liters during the pandemic, double the commitment pre-Covid, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). Still, “we should be much faster on SAF,” Faury lamented.
ATAG research predicts a need for about 400 million tonnes of SAF per year by 2050—or 8,000 times the 50,000 tonnes produced in 2020. This upscaling will require around 5,000 to 7,000 SAF production facilities.
Meanwhile, Airbus is focusing on electrification technology to power its urban mobility aircraft, the CityAirbus NextGen. The manufacturer unveiled a design for a fixed-wing eVTOL with a V-shaped tail and eight sets of electric motors and propellers at its sustainability summit in Toulouse. The CityAirbus NexGen is a blend of elments of two former e-VTOL demonstrators, the Vahana and CityAirbus. The all-electric CityAirbus NextGen will carry up to four passengers on flights of up to 80 km (50 miles) and at speeds of 120 km/h (75 mph). “We are on a quest to co-create an entirely new market that sustainably integrates urban air mobility into the cities while addressing environmental and social concerns,” concluded Airbus Helicopters CEO Bruno Even.