In 2019, 42 million commercial flights took to the air, carrying upwards of 4.5 billion passengers worldwide. That breaks down to an average of 115,000 flights every day. These flights rely on fossil fuels and contribute to global CO2 emissions. The aviation industry produces 2-3% of the world’s carbon emissions.
As countries strive to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and the emissions they create, a unique new option is emerging: hydrogen. How can airlines turn to hydrogen for their jet fuel?
Not Letting History Repeat Itself
When most people think of hydrogen and flight, the first thing that comes to mind is the Hindenburg disaster. The hydrogen-filled dirigible burst into flames in 1937, leaving 36 people dead. Numerous theories about its destruction have surfaced over the years, from lightning to sabotage. Still, investigators concluded soon after its failure that a stray spark ignited leaking hydrogen, which caused the airship to catch fire and explode.
It’s important to note that this devastating tragedy isn’t possible with modern hydrogen-powered aircraft. Instead of utilizing hydrogen for its lighter-than-air properties, these fuel cells function by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Instead of releasing CO2, hydrogen fuel cells release water and oxygen as their exhaust.
Making Hydrogen Green
Hydrogen fuel cells might seem like the perfect solution to help airlines reduce their carbon footprint, but only if hydrogen production goes green. Currently, hydrogen fuel production is broken down into four categories: gray, blue, turquoise, and green.
Gray and blue hydrogen are captured through SMR or gasification and are sourced from methane or coal. The difference between gray and blue is that to be considered blue hydrogen, the SMR or gasification process needs to be paired with carbon capture that prevents 85-95% of the CO2 emissions from escaping.
Turquoise hydrogen uses pyrolysis to capture hydrogen, but it’s still sourced from methane. Truly green hydrogen would be sourced from renewable sources without relying on methane or fossil fuels.
Exploring Hydrogen in Commercial Airliners
Companies are already beginning to explore applications for hydrogen in commercial airliners. Airbus is working on creating the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft through hydrogen fuel cells.
There are two ways to use hydrogen on an aircraft. One is to burn it directly, just like with existing jet fuel. The other is to use it to generate electricity that could power the jet turbines. Airbus plans to use a combination of the two and hopes to have their hydrogen-powered, zero-emission aircraft in the air by 2035.
Other green fuel options, such as biofuel, can help reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. The International Air Travel Association set a recent goal to see 1 billion passengers travel on flights powered by sustainable fuels by 2025. Considering the 4.5 billion passengers that travel by plane each year, this is an achievable goal.
Taking Hydrogen to the Sky
Sustainability in the airline industry is essential, especially when considering how much CO2 the commercial airline sector generates every year. Hydrogen is just one piece of the puzzle, but it could help fill the gaps that things like biofuel and solar power leave behind.
Jane Marsh, Contributor
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