The future of flight may belong to one of the fuels of its past, if Airbus has anything to say about it. In an ambitious new push to reduce the emissions footprint of commercial air travel to zero, the French plane-making giant has just revealed three hydrogen-powered concepts it hopes to refine into a final working aircraft that’ll be ready for takeoff within the next 15 years.
Setting 2035 as its target date, the company says it aims “to explore a variety of configurations and hydrogen technologies that will shape the development of our future zero-emission aircraft” as part of its ZEROe program. Each of the three designs uses “hydrogen combustion through modified gas-turbine engines,” functioning in a hybrid-electric propulsion system that generates “electrical power that complements the gas turbine.”
Among the three designs, the most visually striking is the Blended-Wing Body (BWB), Airbus’ newest take on the oft-explored, but seldom-implemented concept of a wide monobody design that integrates the wings and fuselage into a single shape. “The exceptionally wide interior opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution,” says Airbus, which proposes powering the craft with two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines fueled by hydrogen tanks beneath the wings. The aircraft’s designed range would allow it to carry from 120-200 passengers more than 2,000 nautical miles.
Airbus’ Turboprop concept looks a little more like a conventional passenger jet, although it incorporates a pair of hybrid hydrogen turboprop engines (instead of turbofans) suspended beneath the wings, with each driving a pair of six-bladed propellers. Fuel storage would be located at the rear, with the plane’s operational focus aiming for short-haul trips that can transport up to 100 passengers. Airbus estimates the Turboprop’s range at 1,000 nautical miles.
Most similar in design to current passenger jets, Airbus’ Turbofan design extends the wingspan while nestling a pair of giant hydrogen-fueled turbofan engines (modified gas-turbine engines running on hydrogen) beneath the fuselage itself. Like the Blended-Wing Body concept, the Turbofan would be capable of long-haul transcontinental flight for 120-200 passengers with a range in excess of 2,000 nautical miles, with the liquid hydrogen fuel stored at the rear.
Each concept reflects a different approach to incorporating hydrogen — a lightweight fuel that nevertheless requires significant storage capacity — into a modern commercial aircraft design, but Airbus believes the highly-combustible and abundant power source “holds exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel and is likely to be a solution for aerospace and many other industries to meet their climate-neutral targets.”
Bloomberg reports that Airbus already has begun discussions with “airports, airlines and energy companies” to address the inevitable need for airport fueling, maintenance, and service infrastructure that would be required to make hydrogen-powered flight achieve widespread adoption. The same reports says Airbus is eyeing a 2028 production start to begin building the planes themselves, after spending the initial years of the program developing and testing the hydrogen systems and negotiating partnerships with manufacturers.