Mark Jones headed his blog post a week or so ago “Things can only get better. That’s what things (almost) always do”, starting the new year “with some cold, hard facts about the world we travel in. Warning: pessimistic readers may want to look away now.” I was reminded of the large number of people who upped and left the hall when we discussed hydrogen-powered flights back in November – they missed the most optimistic session of all the Responsible Tourism panels at WTM London.
The problem with aviation is not flying, it is the dirty fuel. While most airlines are endeavouring to continue with business as usual, some CEOs are facing up to the problem. Offsets, SAF and biofuels are not the solution.
“While they may offer customers some peace of mind, traditional carbon offsets do almost nothing to tackle the emissions from flying,” said United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, in a LinkedIn post in December 2020 pledging to fully cut the company’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “And, more importantly, they simply don’t meet the scale of this global challenge.” More recently Michael O’Leary, of Ryan Air, has pointed out: ‘There isn’t enough cooking oil in the world to power one day of green aviation.”
The transition to clean fuel is coming fast to aviation.
Regent expects to trial their new all-electric seaglider, a plane-boat hybrid, for use in coastal zones. They have sold over 467 seagliders with a $7.9 billion (€7.28 billion) order backlog spanning global aviation and ferry customers. On December 10th, Ampaire flew their Electric EEL demonstrator in Camarillo, California for 12 hours and had fuel for a further two hours. The Eco Caravan can transport up to nine passengers and, according to Ampaire, could be the first electrified regional aircraft to enter commercial service – FAA certification is to be expected in 2024. UK-based Monte Aircraft and Brazil-based Azul Conecta have already placed orders for the Eco Caravan.
At WTM, London engineers from Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, Airbus Aviation Environmental Roadmap (AAER) and Rolls-Royce, easyJet’s Sustainability Director and Bristol Airport described the progress being made to deliver hydrogen-powered aviation at scale by the middle of the next decade. The panel on Decarbonising Aviation – Is Hydrogen Part of the Solution? was recorded, and it is available as a podcast and can be listened to or downloaded. Meanwhile, Airbus’s ZEROe programme remains on schedule to have a plane in the sky powered by hydrogen in 2035.
I had the privilege to interview John Coplin, FRAE, the RB211 aero-engine Chief Designer, then Director of Technology and Design at Rolls Royce. He was passionate about the possibilities of hydrogen powered aviation, about why tourism matters and and why it is important for the world.
The nay sayers, those wedded to business as usual and kerosene argue that there is a problem about green hydrogen.
The BBC headline addresses one of the questions of the moment: Could there be a gold rush for buried hydrogen? Green hydrogen produced by electrolysis is relatively expensive; it is currently ~1%. “Known as natural hydrogen, gold hydrogen or white hydrogen, natural deposits could be an important source.” It is already being used in Bourakébougou, in western Mali. Prof Pironon, research director at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) at the University of Lorraine, estimates there could be 250 million tonnes of hydrogen under France, enough to meet current global demand for more than two years. The US Geological Survey (USGS), estimates that there is probably around 100,000 megatons of accessible hydrogen – and that could represent hundreds of years of supply.
The Economist headlined its story “A rush for colourless gold – Meet the boffins and buccaneers drilling for hydrogen” – the piece is in the Christmas edition of the magazine. Hydrogen has been found in France, America, Brazil, Australia, Colombia and Oman. There is still a degree of uncertainty about how the hydrogen is generated. “In 2020 Viacheslav Zgonnik, a chemist of Ukrainian origin, published a review of academic literature showing that “molecular hydrogen is much more widespread in nature than was previously thought.” Dr Zgonnik reckons that the most promising explanation “is serpentinisation: iron-rich rocks below the Earth’s surface react with very hot water to produce iron oxide and hydrogen gas—in effect, rusting.” The USGS calls it geologic hydrogen. Hydrogen has the highest energy density of all chemical fuels and is very reactive.
Just a couple of days ago Clean Technica announced that Mitsubishi is putting up $690 million to help build the world’s biggest green hydrogen plant, to be located in the Netherlands, “the plunging cost of wind and solar power has stirred activity in the field of electrolysis, in which electricity is deployed to push hydrogen from water.”
There is good reason to be optimistic.