Airbus sets up factory in UK to focus on hydrogen technology for aircraft

A model of one of Airbus’ ZEROe concept planes, pictured in November 2021. The firm said it wants to develop “zero-emission commercial aircraft” by 2035.

Giuseppe Cacace | AFP | Getty Images

Airbus is launching a UK-based facility focused on hydrogen technologies, a move that represents the company’s latest attempt to support the design of its next generation of aircraft.

In a statement on Wednesday, Airbus said Filton’s zero-emission development center, Bristol, had already started work on developing the technology.

A major focus of the site will center on work on what Airbus has called a “competitively priced cryogenic fuel system” that its ZEROe aircraft will require.

Details of three zero-emission “hybrid-hydrogen” concept aircraft as ZEROe were released in September 2020. Airbus said it aims to develop “zero-emission commercial aircraft” by 2035.

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The ZEDC in the UK will join other similar sites in Spain, Germany and France. “All Airbus ZEDCs are expected to be fully operational and ready for ground testing with the first fully functional cryogenic hydrogen tank in 2023, with flight testing beginning in 2026,” the company said.

Aviation’s environmental footprint is significant, with the World Wide Fund for Nature describing it as “one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change” . The WWF also claims that air travel is “currently the most carbon-intensive activity an individual can do”.

Just this week, environmental groups took legal action against KLM, claiming the Dutch aviation giant was misleading the public about the sustainability of the flight.

KLM was notified of the lawsuit on the same day as the company’s annual general meeting. A spokesperson confirmed the group had received the letter and said it would review its contents.

Hopes for hydrogen

In an interview with CNBC earlier this year, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said aviation “will potentially face significant hurdles if we fail to decarbonize at the right pace.”

Faury, speaking to CNBC’s Rosanna Lockwood, outlined a number of areas her company is focusing on. This included making sure planes burned less fuel and emitted less carbon dioxide.

Additionally, the planes the company was now delivering had certified capacity for 50% sustainable aviation fuel in their tanks.

“We need to see the SAF industry move forward, grow, grow to serve the airlines and be able to use this 50% SAF capacity,” he said. “We will go 100% by the end of the decade.”

The above represented a “very important part of what we do”, explained Faury. “The next one is looking at the medium to long term future to bring the hydrogen plane to market, because that’s really the ultimate solution,” he said, noting that many engineering, research and capital would be needed. .

Described by the International Energy Agency as a “versatile energy carrier”, hydrogen has a diverse range of applications and can be deployed in a wide range of industries.

It can be produced in several ways. One method is to use electrolysis, with an electric current splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen.

If the electricity used in this process comes from a renewable source such as wind or solar, some call it green or renewable hydrogen. The vast majority of hydrogen production is currently based on fossil fuels.

Airbus is not the only company to consider using hydrogen in aviation. Last October, plans to operate hydrogen-electric commercial flights between London and Rotterdam were announced, with those responsible for the project hoping it will take off in 2024.

At the time, aviation company ZeroAvia said it was developing a 19-seater plane that would “fly entirely on hydrogen.” In September 2020, a six-seat hydrogen fuel cell aircraft from the company completed its maiden flight.

—CNBC’s Sam Meredith contributed to this report

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