Hybrid planes the combine electrical power with a traditional jet engine are within a few short years of commercialisation. EasyJet has already started test flying a 9-seater model and plans on having started transitioning its short haul fleet by the middle of the next decade. However, the latest technology in the world of aviation may have started to move on again towards an even cleaner fuel model by the time electric flight has become a commercial reality.
The beginning of this month saw the start of the EC-funded Enable H2 project whose target is the development of ultra-low emission hydrogen-powered aircraft.
The project is led by Cranfield University, the post-graduate and research based specialists in science, engineering, technology and management alongside London South Bank University, Heathrow airport and GKN Aerospace. Other educational institutions, organisations and private enterprises will also contribute as the project develops.
Electric hybrid planes will cut down greenhouse gas emissions on short haul flights by an estimated 30% as well as being around 50% quieter and able to gain height after take-off at a steeper angle. However, the electrical systems will still require support from jet engines, meaning that while improved, emissions will still be significant. Commercial aviation already accounts for 2% of all greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and the number of passenger flights is expected to double by 2037. Burning liquid hydrogen as fuel results in zero carbon dioxide emissions and negligible volumes of nitrogen oxide emissions.
Enable H2 is not the first time hydrogen-powered flight has been considered. Airbus initiated a ‘Cryoplane’ project almost a decade ago but abandoned the research on the basis that costs appeared prohibitive. The Enable H2 project, which has £3.5 million in funding, will last 3 years and explore solutions to problems such as on-board storage of hydrogen fuel tanks and the airport infrastructure required. Safety and finding a way to lower the cost of producing hydrogen-based fuel are the other challenges that the scientists working on Enable H2 will seek to address.
The huge advantages of hydrogen, from its higher power offering thrust 3 times that of oil-based jet fuel to near environmental neutrality when burnt, have until now been offset by the complications around using it. It needs to be kept at a temperature of minus 250C and fuel tanks need to be multi-layered, making them much bigger and heavier than those currently used. However, if the technology can be developed to make the use of hydrogen safer and more affordable the environmental benefits could be huge.
However, despite breakthroughs the Enable H2 project might result in, it is thought that a full working prototype of a hydrogen-powered aircraft is still around 20 years away, which would likely mean commercialisation for passenger flights a further 20 years. So the latest technology in the world of aviation can still be considered to be at an embryonic stage but the results of the Enable H2 project will hopefully be an important first step towards environmentally friendly flight.