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Article - Hydrogen Aviation: Realistic or Crash Scenario?

Hydrogen investments are growing: €9bn in Germany to accelerate hydrogen production by 2040, €1.5bn in France to build a hydrogen-powered prototype aircraft between 2026 and 2028, £12bn in the United Kingdom to build a 4GW wind farm for hydrogen production, etc.

To summarize, hydrogen is a trendy topic, especially in civil aviation, where the promise of decarbonized aviation in 2035 is catching everyone's attention. But what are the challenges to achieve this goal?

Redesigning and certifying the aircraft

A hydrogen-powered airplane requires a complete redesign: new fuselage, engine modifications, and integration of cylindrical tanks to store liquid hydrogen. Therefore, a new certification process is required that hasn’t been invented yet.

Balancing zero emissions, economic viability, and production capacity

There are 3 types of hydrogen, classified according to their method of production:

  • “Grey" hydrogen: produced from fossil fuels. More polluting and more expensive than kerosene, grey hydrogen has no interest in this context.
  • “Blue" hydrogen: produced using carbon capture and/or nuclear energy. Approximately 3 times less polluting than kerosene; its use is estimated to increase the price of the plane ticket by about 10%.
  • “Green" hydrogen: produced by electrolysis. Its carbon impact is estimated to be 6 times less than kerosene, but its financial impact on the price of the ticket is almost 20%.

Which energy mix?

The production of hydrogen by electrolysis requires a significant amount of electricity. This calls for new production capacity, ideally renewable. To illustrate the scale of this challenge, we have simulated the number of wind turbines or EPR reactors that this overcapacity represents to supply two major airports: 

To sum up, reconciling green hydrogen, economic viability and production capacity now seems utopian unless major advances are made in energy production.

Reinventing the supply chain

The goal of carbon-free aviation by 2035 raises another major challenge: 40,000 airports have to undergo a major infrastructure overhaul while maintaining double capacity for a transition period of 30 years.

Beyond this challenge, most energy players must review their position along the value chain. At this stage, Total and Air Liquide are positioning themselves on Hydrogen service stations for light vehicles. At the beginning of 2020, there are only 1,200 of them in the world, 18 years after the introduction of the first hydrogen-powered cars...

  • H2 aircraft has proved to be feasible, however a long development and certification phase is expected.
  • ‘Zero’-carbon aviation is technically achievable with H2. Today, its production is mostly “grey” and more polluting than burning kerosene.
  • Immediate focus should be on infrastructures and supply. An H2 airplane without refueling capabilities is useless.
  • H2 for aviation will benefit from a scale effect as many regions and industries are investing heavily in it.
  • Production ramp up will be a massive challenge since a large amount of energy will be needed to generate H2: A full H2 scenario would require 35% of the current worldwide electricity generation capacity.
  • E-fuels might play a role as a short to mid-term solution, especially for the already existing fleet, despite significant production costs.
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