Airbus to Test Hydrogen Powered Super Jumbo Jet

February 22, 2022


The Airbus A380 represents the last superjumbo of a bygone, kerosene-guzzling era. Now the double-decker will serve as the unlikely test bed to help the industry fly into a fuel-efficient future.

Airbus SE will use a model to test its first propulsion system using hydrogen, a fuel the planemaker wants to introduce on a new passenger aircraft by 2035. The modified jetliner, the first of its kind that Airbus ever built, will maintain its four conventional turbines, while a fifth engine adapted for hydrogen use will be mounted on the rear fuselage.   

The unusual design of the demonstration aircraft, developed in collaboration with engine-maker CFM International, will allow emissions to be monitored separately from those of the turbines powering the aircraft, including contrails, Airbus said in a statement. The wispy clouds planes leave behind in the sky are of growing concern as they trap warmer air in the atmosphere. 

The hydrogen test program will give at least one of the troubled jumbo jets, consigned to the commercial scrap heap even before the pandemic, a second life as it tests the new technology. 

Bloomberg reported on Monday that Airbus was poised to announce the collaboration with CFM, a joint venture of General Electric Co.and Safran SA

While hydrogen is still under research for use in jet engines, Airbus is attempting to rally the aviation industry behind the technology as it faces mounting pressure to reduce emissions that lead to global warming. Last year, the airline industry’s main trade group endorsed a plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

“To achieve these goals by 2050 the industry has to take action now and we are,” said Gael Meheust, CFM’s chief executive officer.

Flight Plan

The demonstrator is set to begin flying in the middle of this decade. While a commercial product will be much smaller, the development plan allows Airbus to take advantage of the A380’s size to give engineers room for extra tanks, testing equipment, and the fifth engine at the back, executives said.

The main deck of the aircraft will have four hermetically sealed hydrogen tanks and a distribution system to the engine, a modified GE Passport turbofan. That smaller-scale version of CFM’s LEAP engine was originally designed for the business jet market and was chosen because of its light weight.

Airbus will carry out ground tests this year, then convert the aircraft, targeting flight tests by the end of 2026. This is in line with the company’s existing timetable to make its technology choices by 2027 and launch a hydrogen jet by 2035, Chief Technology Officer Sabine Klauke said. 

Airbus rival Boeing Co. is testing hydrogen fuel cells on its ScanEagle3 pilotless military drone, while expressing skepticism about the 2035 target for commercial jetliners.

Safran has called hydrogen a “promising candidate” for future aircraft models, and has been developing materials and fuel-system adjustments to be used with the technology.

With manufacturers gearing up to ultimately make the shift to zero-emission flying, enginemakers GE, Safran, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc will all compete for a share of the new market. 

Financial Times (paywall):

The number of technical challenges are large. Under the plans, 400kg of liquid hydrogen will be stored in four tanks at minus 253 degrees Celsius. A new cryogenic distribution system will need to be developed. The hydrogen will also need to be converted into a gas before it is burnt. The gas burns at a much higher temperature than conventional jet fuel, so special cooling and coating materials will also need to be developed.

“Is hydrogen harder? Yes. Is it do-able? Absolutely,” said Mohamed Ali, vice-president and general manager of engineering at GE Aviation. Executives said the decision to use an A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner, would allow engineers more room for things like the tanks and the testing equipment. A commercial product will be much smaller. Airbus said last year it would likely initially produce a regional or shorter-range aircraft.

The aviation industry is divided over the speed at which companies can make hydrogen happen. Apart from the complex engineering challenges, significant investments will be needed to build up the supply of “green” hydrogen made by renewables, to change fuel storage requirements at airports as well as the associated infrastructure.

Detractors say that sustainable fuels are the only practical solution to greening aviation. Engineers at Airbus are working on several different zero-emission concepts, all of which rely on hydrogen as their primary power source.

Sabine Klauke, chief technology officer, said the company would decide by the end of this decade which route to take. Klauke admitted that “an immense work and investment” would be needed to develop the demonstrator aircraft. Airbus declined to disclose the exact size of the investment but said it was part of its “overall research and development plans”.

4 Responses to “Airbus to Test Hydrogen Powered Super Jumbo Jet”

  1. It’s already been done. in 1988 the Russians converted one of the three engines on a Tu-154 to run on hydrogen. After five flights it was converted to natural gas.

  2. Keith Omelvena Says:

    “Airbus is attempting to rally the aviation industry behind the technology as it faces mounting pressure to reduce emissions that lead to global warming.” The only way this industry will reduce it’s impact, is if it disappears!

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      If it was to disappear, what then? Billions of air mile passengers and billions of tons of cargo would now need to be transported with existing technology.

      What would that look like, for a grand savings of 4% of GHG emissions or much less if this tech actually progresses?

      And GHG emissions do not occur in a simple arithmetic universe. The carbon cycle exists, and it is HUGE. The Earth processes a gigantic amount of carbon every minute and the delta between being in balance and being in excess is relatively quite small.

      IOW, if we eliminate the low-hanging fruit of the 80% of GHG that come from fossil fuels we will have changed that calculus from being in excess to being in arrears. Atmospheric CO2 would be dropping every year even if we retain the aviation industry as is, or better yet convert it to electric or hydrogen flight.

      We don’t need to return to the stone age to win the AGW game.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        The Earth processes a gigantic amount of carbon every minute and the delta between being in balance and being in excess is relatively quite small.

        Yet our emissions are still growing, and the positive feedbacks (loss of snow/ice albedo, emissions from thawing permafrost, drought&heat magnification of wildfires, etc.) are adding heat or “natural” emissions to that carbon cycle.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: