The Aviation Week webinar on 22JAN21, moderated by its Executive Editor, Technology, Graham Warwick, took a look at the case for hydrogen as alternative aircraft energy. “Hydrogen Propulsion – Promise and Challenges” featured a panel discussion with Paul Eremenko, CEO of Universal Hydrogen, Andreas Kollbye Aks, Chief Strategy Officer of Wider∅e AS, Nico Buchholz, Former Lufthansa VP Fleet Planning, and Olof Nittinger, Head of Aircraft Evaluation and Market Intelligence for Lufthansa Group.
It began with an audience poll on the question “Which market makes the most sense for hydrogen flights’ first entry: UAM, regional services, or single-aisle?” and the audience voted 25%, 54%, and 20% respectively. All three segments, Graham Warwick reminded them, already have hydrogen initiatives running already, so all are possible.
“Why is now the right time for hydrogen aviation?”
Warwick posed the question to Paul Eremenko whose company, Universal Hydrogen, is tackling the huge challenge of bringing hydrogen to aviation. “In many ways, it's the ideal aviation fuel; not only is it carbon free, but it's also the most efficient energy carrier from a gravimetric energy density perspective of any non-nuclear fuel out there - three to four times better than jet fuel as an energy carrier. And on top of all of that, it also has really excellent safety properties that are intrinsic to the fuel,” Eremenko underlined the benefits, pointing out that the concept of hydrogen as aviation energy is not a new one: “The first manned airplane flew on hydrogen back in the 1950s, and the Soviets flew an airliner in the 1980s, the Tupolev Tu-155, on hydrogen. So, I think a fair question to ask is what's new?” He described the “emergence and the maturation of a new technology called PEM or proton exchange membrane” over the past few decades; a technology enabling hydrogen production through a green electrolysis process, using carbon free renewable energy input, which is a “much more efficient and much more economical production” process that results in “green hydrogen” which “has no carbon footprint in its production process, and is likely to reach cost parity with jet fuel on an equivalent energy basis by the mid-2020s.”
“Aviation has no roadmap to meet the Paris Agreement!”
With the premise that green hydrogen is such an effective alternative, Eremenko called it “shameful!” that “Aviation has no roadmap to meet the Paris Agreement” and went on to illustrate two main obstacles his company had identified as “gaps in the value chain” along with Universal Hydrogen’s solutions: 1) the distribution from the point of production to the airport – this could be overcome by the use of modular fuel capsules, and 2) no aviation certified power trend at commercially relevant scales – here the solution is to retrofit existing airplanes, starting with small, regional aircraft, to then create a proof-point for aircraft producers to work on single-aisle solutions and upward.
“We need to be decarbonizing this industry now!”
The environmental pressure through the growing awareness of the general public that “emissions are bad”, is an additional propellor towards change, and this was illustrated both by Olof Nittinger speaking for the Lufthansa Group, and Andreas Kollbye Aks on behalf of Wider∅e. Nittinger underlined that sustainability is “embedded as an overarching theme in the Lufthansa Group strategy,” and was a key element in all investment and process decisions, but also pointed out that, as an airline, “we are in a difficult position as we neither produce the fuel, nor the airplanes, nor are we involved in the research” when it came to green hydrogen, and at the same time the Group had to run a business economically, bear in mind what is possible within which time-frames, all whilst offering a seamless service to its customers. It was also, however, participating in carbon offsetting schemes and other alternative fuel initiatives.
“Three main reasons why we find hydrogen attractive”
Kollbye Aks, illustrated why Wider∅e, as a regional airline, was interested in hydrogen along with all other kinds of zero-emission solutions: 1) “as already illustrated by the poll, as a regional airline, we also believe that these new technologies will first come within regional-sized aircraft, and we operate right in this segment”, 2) “in Norway, being part of this very environmentally concerned Scandinavian culture, […] we have a customer base that is more and more focused on sustainability” along with national politicians pushing for sustainable solutions, thus as a “Scandinavian based airline [it] is really important for us [to be] in the very forefront of this,” and 3) the initial range limitations of the new technologies not only work in the company’s business model, but also enable Wider∅e to blaze a trail for the industry in the run up to upgrading the technology to larger aircraft in future. Nittinger also pointed out that regional aircraft make up the largest percent in carbon emissions in aviation, thus regional was a good place to start.
“We are a global industry”
Nico Buchholz emphasized that “the Paris Agreement is not an agreement between airlines” rather, it “is a political agreement to battle global warming,” and that the airlines within the global airline industry all have different business models with differing goals. “One of the stakeholders within this activity will be politics, so that we have a global approach!” The global approach in enabling green hydrogen would facilitate things for international airlines operating to all parts of the world, as well as for aircraft manufacturers, who would then be producing for an aligned global market. He stressed that the current compensation schemes for carbon emissions that airlines were opting for, were not eliminating the problem, just shifting it. Hydrogen could eliminate the problem and should be promoted to “become the Tesla of the air.”
Thus, the globe needs to come together to push for green hydrogen in aviation – it is a feasible alternative and old arguments regarding safety or costs are no longer valid. Yet, the current aviation crisis engendered by the pandemic could also prove to be an additional obstacle in the short term. Or will it propel the move to hydrogen, much as it has done for digitalization?
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