Hydrogen-powered planes envisaged by Airbus could serve most short-haul markets from New Zealand and tap into the growing development of the green fuel here.
Airbus has revealed three ambitious concepts for the world's first zero-emission commercial aircraft which could enter service by 2035 and could be fueled by hydrogen projects here, including using surplus electricity to produce the fuel following the closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.
Although plane makers have seen orders collapse during the pandemic, the aviation sector is looking beyond Covid-19 for the next generation of planes.
The lack of hydrogen processing plants and infrastructure at airports has been a barrier for its use in planes but airlines will be under greater pressure to cut carbon emissions when flying recovers.
Airbus says its three concepts represent a different approach to achieving zero-emission flight, exploring various technology pathways and aerodynamic configurations.
The European conglomerate says it supports the company's ambition of leading the way in the decarbonisation of the entire aviation industry.
All of these concepts rely on hydrogen as a primary power source - an option which Airbus believes 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.
"This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole and we intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen. The concepts we unveil today offer the world a glimpse of our ambition to drive a bold vision for the future of zero-emission flight," said Guillaume Faury, Airbus chief executive.
"I strongly believe that the use of hydrogen - both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft - has the potential to significantly reduce aviation's climate impact."
The three concepts - all codenamed "ZEROe" - for a first climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft include:
• A turbofan design (120-200 passengers) with a range of 2000+ nautical miles,(3700km) capable of operating transcontinentally and powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen, rather than jet fuel, through combustion. The liquid hydrogen will be stored and distributed via tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead. Most Australian cities and the Pacific would be in range and it would suit airlines which favour planes with that capacity for short-haul trips.
• A turboprop design (up to 100 passengers) using a turboprop engine instead of a turbofan and also powered by hydrogen combustion in modified gas-turbine engines, which would be capable of travelling more than 1000 nautical miles, (two return trips between Auckland and Wellington.
• A "blended-wing body" design (up to 200 passengers) concept in which the wings merge with the main body of the aircraft with a range similar to that of the turbofan concept. The exceptionally wide fuselage opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution, and for cabin layout. Airbus doesn't specify its range.
"The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem. Together with the support from government and industrial partners, we can rise up to this challenge to scale up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry," said Faury.
Airbus says that in order to tackle these challenges, airports will require significant hydrogen transport and refuelling infrastructure to meet the needs of day-to-day operations and it will need the support of governments.
Compressed liquid hydrogen would provide power through a process combining hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell, and the reaction produces water, heat
The New Zealand Government is enthusiastic about hydrogen as a transport fuel using renewable energy to produce it. New Zealand already produces thousands of tonnes of hydrogen every year and a number of demonstration projects are operating.
New Zealand Refining is already one of New Zealand's largest producers of steam-reformed hydrogen and investigative work is under way to establish the preferred hydrogen production technology and end-use applications.
New Zealand Hydrogen Association chief executive Linda Wright said earlier this year the opportunity for large scale hydrogen production in New Zealand for both domestic use and export was both real and achievable but required a long-term view and commitment.
Following the announcement of the closure of Tiwai Pt she received a large number of inquiries from a wide range of national and international parties interested in the prospect of using the smelter's electricity supply to create a large-scale hydrogen production facility during the next three- to five-year period.
A study by Concept Consulting for a government agency and power companies last year found the current cost of hydrogen production is high, both compared to fossil fuels and to more direct uses of electricity. This is due to capital costs and process losses involved in producing and storing hydrogen from electricity.
Hydrogen production costs were likely to fall in future if worldwide equipment production scales up and, potentially, due to changes in the profile of wholesale electricity and electricity network prices.