Making sense of aviation’s vibe shift to hydrogen

Sustainable aviation fuels alone can’t get aviation to net-zero — which is why there’s growing momentum behind hydrogen.

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Release Date
February 23, 2022
Making sense of aviation’s vibe shift to hydrogen
Less than four months after the Federal Aviation Administration rolled out its 2021 Aviation Climate Action Plan, the agency’s official blueprint for achieving net-zero aviation emissions by 2050 is already starting to look dated.

The plan relies overwhelmingly on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as the principal pathway for reducing the U.S. aviation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is plainly dismissive of hydrogen, stating: “we do not expect hydrogen-powered aircraft to make a significant contribution toward achieving net-zero aviation emissions by 2050.”

Related: Understanding the industry-transforming dynamics behind Airbus’s hydrogen Moonshot

Meanwhile, Airbus and CFM International — the joint venture between General Electric and Safran — are moving forward with a partnership to demonstrate a hydrogen combustion engine on an A380 flying testbed by the end of 2026. The program will support technology choices by the end of the decade that could lead to a hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft in service by 2035.

Pratt & Whitney is also pursuing a hydrogen combustion engine for next-generation single-aisle aircraft, announcing this week that it will receive $3.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for its Hydrogen Steam Injected Intercooled Turbine Engine (HySIITE) project. Even Boeing, which has long focused on SAF, recently announced it had developed a composite cryogenic hydrogen fuel tank that it suggested could one day be used in commercial aviation.

Why are these companies diverging from the conclusion reached by the FAA? Simply put, it’s because they realize that SAF is unlikely to get the aviation sector all the way to net-zero — something the FAA itself admits.

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