Season 3 / Hydrogen-fuelled flying

Episode 4 / Will our fleets be powered by hydrogen anytime soon?

So following last week’s episode, you’re now very aware that the road towards entirely decarbonised short and medium-haul flights is still long (not even to mention long-haul). But how long? How many years will we have to wait? Will we take our children on holiday to the other side of the planet without thinking about it much or feeling any sense of regret thanks to this technology? Will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren remember that their ancestors felt bad (or didn’t) about travelling by plane? Will flygskam end up as a footnote in a dusty dictionary? Will dictionaries still exist… Sorry, we’ve gone a bit far now, but you see the point.

To clear things up about, we put two questions to Arnaud Aymé, an expert in transport and mobility at Sia Partners. First, we asked him when real, functioning hydrogen planes will be able to fly. Second, we asked when it could become a viable, widely used method of travelling around the world.

According to Airbus’s announcements, and as the French government predicts in its Hydrogen Plan, you might suppose that hydrogen planes will effectively be available for use by 2035 and that it will be industrially feasible to produce them. What’s more, this timeline is also supported by the chemical giants that would be providing the huge quantities of green hydrogen required. Because, and it isn’t said enough, most of the hydrogen currently produced is largely produced using fossil fuels. On the other hand, as for the deployment of a significant fleet, I’d prefer not to offer up a date. Why? Quite simply because the answer could be: never!”, explains the expert.

He continues: “For that to happen, there must be sufficient interest for airlines to get involved, and this is far from a given at present. First, because hydrogen won’t be suitable for all carriers, above all long-haul planes. Next, because you’d have to transport hydrogen to airports, which is extremely difficult due to both the size of the molecule, as well as its flammability. Of course, you can imagine green hydrogen production zones being built near airports, but this would be logistically complex and the infrastructure required would be enormous.” However, despite the cost and technology involved in its construction, the infrastructure would only be suitable for hydrogen-fuelled planes. At best, these would be largely regional flights, rather than long-haul, making the investment required frankly questionable.

For Arnaud Aymé, there’s a second problem: the competition from SAF (sustainable aviation fuel). “They have their own issues, but are much more promising than hydrogen, because we know how to produce them and don’t require modifications to aircraft. While they are still quite expensive, it’s pretty likely production will have increased sufficiently to fix this problem before the development of the hydrogen aviation sector even gets under way. What’s more, even once we’ve got sufficient amounts of green hydrogen, it’s not certain that aviation will be a priority. That’s because it could prove much more useful for the decarbonisation of the lorry industry, rather than planes. However, we’re no longer in the greenwashing era, when it sufficed to tell a pretty story to make you come across eco-friendly. Today, if airlines want to get financial backing from banks, they have to offer a clear trajectory towards carbon neutrality. They need concrete, actionable solutions, which, in my opinion, doesn’t work in hydrogen’s favour.” Curtains, then.

So there are two timelines to bear in mind for the hydrogen plane: 2035 for the technology itself and probably never for the deployment of a substantial fleet. As we’ve done in previous newsletters, here’s a small list of predictions for both.

When a hydrogen plane will be ready to take off in 2035:

  • Combustion-engine cars will be almost completely banned from sale within the EU
  • Everyone will wonder whether if a new management plan should be introduced for the millions of vehicles still in circulation or if it better to keep our old C4 Cactuses to sell them to collectors
  • According to the IPCC, the climate will have already surpassed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, and according to Météo France, temperatures will often go above 50C
  • The media will speak of turbo-heatwaves and mega-droughts, as if they are new phenomena
  • The number of planes fuelled by kerosene will reach 47,000, compared with just over 23,000 today
  • Plane passengers will be allowed to travel in swimsuits to help them cope with the heat

When all of our planes will be powered by hydrogen in… sometime in the future:

  • All our global fleets will be fuelled by hydrogen
  • And Pigs will fly, too

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