The Future of Sustainable Flight: 5 Questions About Hydrogen-Powered Aircraft

Esther Kromhout by Esther Kromhout | Aug 3, 2023

The appetite for travel continues to grow. ACI World’s analysis of global airport data shows that passenger traffic worldwide is expected to reach 19.3 billion in 2041, and 23.9 billion in 2050. These figures are based upon ACI World’s “World Airport Traffic Forecast 2022-2041,” the most authoritative analysis of air traffic data from 2600 airports worldwide across 180 countries.

At the same time, the aviation industry is under pressure to continue adopting ever more sustainable practices. Aviation is currently responsible for around 3% of global carbon emissions – a figure that’s set to grow if no action is taken (World Economic Forum).

The transition to sustainable aviation is taking place on a global scale, and hydrogen-powered aircraft could provide huge benefits to the industry.

But there isn’t one simple answer to the problem. It’s not just about exploring sustainable flight and the use of alternative fuels such as hydrogen, but a more holistic approach that also takes into account the ground infrastructure, supply chain, and airport buildings that support it.

Here, I explore five key questions airports must consider when adopting a holistic approach to sustainable aviation.

1. What is hydrogen-powered aircraft?

Hydrogen has the power to revolutionize the aviation industry, from ground service equipment to powering aircraft.

It is a promising, true zero solution to achieve zero CO2 and non-CO2 emissions which could minimize the industry’s climate impact significantly. And there are two types of application for hydrogen in aircraft:

  1. Hydrogen fuel cell aircraft. These aircraft run on gaseous or liquid hydrogen and offer a “true zero” solution for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as the only output of fuel cells is water vapour, such as ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen.
  2. Hydrogen combustion. This technology is still in its infancy for aviation, but has undergone successful testing, such as Rolls Royce’s collaboration with Easyjet in 2022.

Hydrogen has a higher energy density per kilogram compared to traditional jet fuel. This means that hydrogen-powered aircraft could benefit from much larger ranges and payload capacities than electric aircraft (ICCT, 2022).

While there is currently no single, like-for-like replacement for jet fuel, we foresee a future energy mix in aviation comprising aircraft powered by hydrogen, electric, and Sustainable Aviation Fuels. This energy mix will bridge the gap in range and passenger capacity.

2. How will my airport need to adapt?

Hydrogen is a very new concept within the airport environment, and its unique properties can present challenges for airports that have become accustomed to Jet A1 kerosene. The transition to hydrogen-powered aviation requires not only the development of new aircraft, but also adjustments to airport infrastructure and operations.

The impact of hydrogen on an airport depends on the volume of hydrogen required, which varies based on factors such as type of aircraft and share of air traffic. The chosen boundary of the hydrogen supply chain plays a critical role in shaping an airport’s spatial planning and operations.

We see two key impact areas that airports must address in order to adapt effectively:

  1. Airport planning and operations: To ensure your airport is ready for hydrogen, you need to re-examine both your airport master planning and daily operations. A phased adoption strategy is crucial, for example, starting with the use of ground service equipment running on hydrogen. Key adaptations will involve addressing supply chain requirements, the spatial footprint of facilities, safety zones, and transport links.
  2. Investments and finance: You’ll need to develop a suitable business case to facilitate a reliable roll-out and maximise return on investment with minimum risk exposure.

3.  Which stakeholders need to be taken into consideration for this to happen?

The key to the shift towards sustainable aviation is our stakeholders! Collaboration is crucial, and airports must involve suppliers, operators, and supporter stakeholders wherever possible.

Furthermore, we should capitalise on the existing knowledge available.  It is essential to combine expertise in hydrogen and airport operations from an independent organization to assess the feasibility of the hydrogen supply chain and its impact on airport planning.

From a regulatory perspective, local, regional, and national regulations will shape individual airports’ experience of implementing hydrogen. Close co-operation with government entities involved with national hydrogen strategies will be vital in positioning the aviation industry as a key player in this new technology.

4. Where should I even begin?

When considering the bigger picture of sustainable aviation, every airport should develop an overarching and robust sustainability strategy. This strategy should encompass not only ground infrastructure and airport buildings but also explore the benefits of hydrogen and other fuel alternatives. It is important to take a planned approach to adapt operations and infrastructure wherever required, in consultation with local stakeholders and communities. Ultimately this will help to reach global sustainability targets.

5. Why is sustainable aviation so important?

We are well aware that demand for travel is continually growing on a global scale. The role of aviation in economic prosperity over the coming years will be key, particularly given the rise of developing countries.

As an industry, we are headed for unprecedented disruption as we accelerate on the road to net zero. However, we are committed to meeting our sustainability targets, delivering value and business continuity across the globe – and our collective impact on the environment could be huge.

Embracing the energy mix

Hydrogen-powered aircraft are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to decarbonizing and minimizing the climate impact of the aviation sector.

The aviation industry must exhibit ambition and explore new ideas and approaches, both in the near-term and long-term, to effectively address the impacts of its GHG emissions.

To secure our future, we see huge value in embracing an energy mix of hydrogen, electric and Sustainable Aviation Fuels.

Regulators and consumers are demanding more environmentally friendly solutions, and now is the opportune time to explore more sustainable options in order to see true competitive advantage. Having a clear strategy for your airport is vital to ensure a successful transition to sustainable aviation.

Learn more about the impact of hydrogen-powered flight on airports and the need for a holistic approach to sustainable aviation in the article “Hydrogen – how will it change aviation?”

Esther Kromhout

Esther Kromhout

Director, NACO, Netherlands Airport Consultants
Esther J. Kromhout leads a team of 200 multi-disciplinary airport consultants of over 40 nationalities as Director of NACO, Netherlands Airport Consultants. With over 20 years' experience in the aviation industry, she has worked in a wide variety of projects worldwide. Esther has also undertaken secondments at clients such as the Government of Gibraltar and the Aruba Airport Authority. Esther’s expertise spans management of complex airport projects, extensive civil engineering knowledge, and sustainable airport development. She is deeply passionate about innovative approaches that will spearhead aviation’s transition to net zero.
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