By 2035, hydrogen fuel cells could be used to electrify mid-range flights and hydrogen combustion aircraft could be used on long-haul flights, according to a recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF).
1. Sustainable batteries and hydrogen
The WEF’s Target True Zero initiative released its first report, Unlocking Sustainable Battery and Hydrogen-Powered Flight, setting out the role new propulsion technologies utilising battery or hydrogen power can play in contributing to the industry’s decarbonisation efforts.
The Target True Zero initiative was launched in 2021 to accelerate the development and deployment of these new technologies. The goal was to bring together experts in the field to propose new ideas for alternative propulsion modes while mobilising different stakeholders to take action.
The adoption of alternative propulsion technologies will help reduce the climate impact of our operations while preserving the immense social and economic benefits that aviation brings to the world.David Morgan, Chief Operating Officer at easyJet
Produced in conjunction with the University of Cambridge’s Aviation Impact Accelerator, the report is the first comprehensive attempt to understand the full climate impact of adopting alternative propulsion technologies would be.
2. Three alternatives
The report finds that by 2035 three promising types of alternative propulsion aircraft could offer viable alternatives to conventional carbon emitting aircraft. First, fully battery electric aircraft could enable completely emission free flight over the shortest distances. Second, hydrogen could be used to electrify aircraft with fuel cells over mid-range distances. The third option is through direct combustion using hydrogen, which could be applied to any aircraft operating any distances flown today, WEF’s report states.
The development time of a new aircraft is roughly a decade, and most aircraft models are typically produced over a few decades and then operated for a few decades more. That means an aircraft entering development today will likely still be operational in 2050.JoeBen Bevirt, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Joby Aviation
3. Reducing emissions
Reducing carbon emissions during flight is only one aspect of the problem. WEF’s report also takes into account the full lifecycle impacts of any fuel or energy source used to power an aircraft. So too is the impact of manufacturing and replacing batteries for electric aircraft. WEF’s report examines how new technologies could impact these other emissions and the key uncertainties that must be resolved to understand the full climate impact of adoption of these new technologies.
After the launch of the report, at the Farnborough International Airshow, Val Miftakhov, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at ZeroAvia said the new initiative is “incredibly important“ for the future of the aviation sector. “The challenges in scaling sustainable aviation fuels over time and the need to focus on the full breadth of climate forcing aviation emissions mean we need to look at new solutions,“ said Miftakhov.
4. Technological unlocks
In the report, eight key technological unlocks have been identified which are expected to enable the technology to be adopted to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050:
- Ensuring aviation batteries are charged with renewable energy
- Accelerating the introduction of green hydrogen
- Improving battery life-cycles and management for aviation
- Improving battery-electric aircraft energy density
- Developing lighter fuel cell systems
- Developing lighter storage tanks for liquid hydrogen
- Redesigning aircraft for optimized hydrogen performance
- Contrail research and mitigation