Green hydrogen, also for air transport

19 December, 2022

Aviation is a significant contributor to the global economy, and has become increasingly popular in recent years due to the emergence of low-cost carriers and the surge in leisure travel. Despite efforts to decrease its environmental footprint, the air travel industry has seen an annual rise in pollution emissions – apart from in 2020 when the sector was forced to a halt due to the pandemic.

Air transport is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 3.8% of total European Union (EU) emissions according to the European Environment Agency. This ranks it as the third most polluting mode of transport after land transport (20,5 %) and  maritime transport (4 %).

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, commercial flights emitted approximately 900 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019. Given that this industry is projected to grow worldwide, there is a commitment from leading players to undertake a process of decarbonisation.

The search for sustainable alternative fuels

The aviation industry has embarked on a path of no return towards sustainability through efficiency and emissions reduction.

Significant progress has been made recently in engine technology, air traffic management and the use of sustainable fuels. All of this is necessary to achieve goals such as the European Union’s target to make 63% of jet fuel sustainable by 2050 or IATA’s target to reduce the sector’s emissions by 50% by 2050.

The aviation industry has embarked on an irreversible trajectory towards sustainability, focusing on increasing efficiency and reducing emissions

There are several types of fuels that are considered sustainable for aviation, such as Biojet, a biofuel made from biological waste, or E-Jet, a synthetic fuel made from CO2 removed from the atmosphere and industry, along with renewable hydrogen.

Although these proposals make progress towards reducing emissions, it is also important to develop other alternatives in the medium and long term. And here renewable hydrogen is one of the most important options for two reasons:

  • It is a totally clean fuel. In all its production process, CO2 emissions are zero.
  • It is obtained from elements as abundant as water and renewable electrical energy.

Hydrogen usage will necessitate a transformation of airports, with infrastructure adjustments necessary to store and refuel the hydrogen. Additionally, the establishment of a hydrogen economy is essential in order to supply power to airports.

Hydrogen is already a real hope for the gradual decarbonisation of aviation. Indeed, we have some examples to prove it:

  • The alliance between Etihad Airways and Cepsa to develop and produce sustainable aviation fuels such as green hydrogen.
  • A consortium of Dutch institutions and companies, including the Dutch government and the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre, aims to fly from the Netherlands to London in 2028 with the first large passenger aircraft powered by renewable hydrogen. It is expected to conduct a laboratory test in 2025.
  • Airbus is targeting 2035 for the operation and service of its zero-emission aircraft, powered by liquid hydrogen.
  • The UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) has unveiled its Flyzero programme with the goal of developing a long-range commercial aircraft, again utilizing liquid hydrogen as an energy source.

Hydrogen is already a real hope for the decarbonisation of aviation

It is evident that alternative fuels will eventually substitute hydrocarbons for air transportation. While the exact timeline remains unclear, swift progress is underway to create technologies and infrastructure required for the successful deployment of reliable, sustainable energy sources like hydrogen.