Hydrogen-powered planes offer a new perspective for sustainable travel

Hydrogen-powered aircraft fleets would form the platform for a very different kind of transportation system, says Jenny Kavanagh, chief strategy officer, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS)

Transportation is a puzzle: disputes over new airport runways and the construction of more roads, increasing urbanization, traffic jams and guilt over the resulting pollution and climate change. Rather than bringing freedom, the demands of mobility suffocate us.

It doesn’t have to be like that. We are developing the technology to provide a zero carbon transport network in the UK. And now, the shock and disruption of the pandemic also means the possibility of letting go of rigid, fragmentary thinking about transport policy and building back better.

What is needed, however, is the transport version of the Internet technological revolution. We need a sudden technological breakthrough with such potential that it can pull the rest of the world – businesses, governments and regulators – with it.


Hydrogen theft may well be that breakthrough. Hydrogen-powered aircraft fleets would be the platform for a very different type of transportation system. Zero carbon, but also silent. This would allow there to be a proliferation of smaller local airports, operating closer to communities, offering short trips. Local airports would also act as transportation hubs linked to other more sustainable systems, electric trains or other mass transit vehicles; electric cars where needed, while providing a green and efficient link to major aerospace hubs. Digital communications and means of data sharing can provide people with a real-time picture of transportation options, how to minimize carbon footprint as well as time and costs, all through a single application.

The aviation industry in particular faces huge and complex challenges when it comes to meeting its global carbon reduction commitments. The UK’s Jet Zero strategy gives new impetus and re-examination to the national agenda: aim for zero net aviation emissions by 2050. More than any other sector, rebuilding better in aviation is fundamental to its status future and its ability to prosper and grow. Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) can only be a temporary measure, a quick victory for the industry to signal progress as most important work is underway on R&D on technologies that can be the foundation an entirely new, zero-carbon aviation infrastructure. .

Our experience at Cranfield Aerospace Solutions has severe limitations to the potential for battery-powered electric flight, even when it comes to short jumps. Hydrogen, whether burned directly or used in a fuel cell to generate electricity, holds much more promise. Like batteries, hydrogen generates zero carbon, the only emissions being water and heat, and planes can be refueled in almost the same time frame as with conventional fuel. Per unit mass, hydrogen provides three times more energy than a conventional jet fuel like kerosene, and a hundred times more than a lithium-ion battery.

Our experience at Cranfield Aerospace Solutions has severe limitations to the potential for battery-powered electric flight

New confidence in hydrogen is growing with the Fresson project, a partnership between the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Innovate UK, led by Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS). More than a blue sky reflection on hydrogen flight, the Fresson project aims to provide commercially viable services in the short term: the world’s first truly green passenger transport services. Building on 25 years of experience working with OEMs on both the design and certification of new aircraft, CAeS is developing a modernization powertrain solution for a nine-passenger Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, as well as reviewing business models and going beyond any capacity. and supply chain issues. The Fresson project expects the hydrogen plane to be in service for short jumps by 2025

One of the biggest challenges we face is the lack of certification rules for hydrogen-based aviation. Current standards do not apply. Complex changes to planes (and the way airports handle hydrogen as aviation fuel) are needed – meaning the Civil Aviation Authority must be an active partner in the journey, to give a sense as to what is applicable and what does not suit the purpose. But we must continue to push the certification file forward with proof of technology, there is no time to wait if Jet Zero’s goals will ever be achievable.

Regular long-haul journeys using hydrogen still seem a long way off but are within reach. Maybe we won’t be able to fly from London to Perth straight on a zero-emission plane, but that raises questions about why we need big, ultra-long-range planes anyway. An environmentally damaging extravaganza – and just because we can it doesn’t mean we should. Again, we need to think about the big picture of transportation, what is viable and what works. We can quickly get used to a new convention: jumping around the world, using a sustainable hop system made fluid and easy by digitized operations, being less obsessive and frantic to save time. Wouldn’t the trip become a richer experience?

Jenny Kavanagh, Director of Strategy, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS)

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