When and What We Can Expect from Hydrogen Aviation
by Jane Marsh
Hydrogen is a fitting element for an industry that defies gravity and the new technology has the potential to overhaul aviation entirely. It’s a clean and versatile fuel airlines can use instead of fossil fuels. While development is still in the early stages, it seems like a promising option. So, when and what can we expect from hydrogen aviation?
Hydrogen Power in Aviation
Hydrogen is a relatively new improvement in the aviation industry. Still, many organizations have been quick to adapt to the latest technology. The European startup Destinus developed a hydrogen-powered jet capable of traveling from the United States to Australia in as little as four hours. Typically, it takes over 17 hours. After successfully flying its prototype in 2022, it plans to test its new version by the end of 2023.
The startup isn’t alone in its use of hydrogen power — many other airlines are testing out the limits of the new fuel. It’s one of the most common and lightest elements on Earth. Since it also has excellent performance with demanding equipment, it seems perfect for aviation.
Why Are Airlines Considering Hydrogen Planes?
Hydrogen-powered aviation matters to many people because eco-friendly alternatives are becoming necessary. In part, change is essential because of the industry’s effects on the environment. While the COVID-19 pandemic briefly reduced the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) it produced, its emissions have steadily increased since then.
Airlines must recover from business losses due to shutdowns, but their behavior isn’t sustainable. If emissions continue to increase, experts project domestic and international flights will create more than 927 metric tons of CO2 by 2030. Although the amount was technically higher in 2019, this figure reveals they’re not on track for positive change.
Manufacturers, airlines, and airports see the value of going green. In 2021, the International Air Transport Association committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. They’re looking to clean fuels to balance their environmental impact.
Engineers can’t exactly strap solar panels to the side of a plane, so they need a different clean alternative. While hydrogen aviation isn’t the only reasonable solution, it’s one of the best. It may be key to reducing carbon emissions because it only produces heat and water when it combusts.
It’s not renewable, but it’s green energy. While it has its drawbacks, it’s widely available. On top of that, it’s relatively easy to update old aircraft to use the new fuel.
When Might It Roll Out?
More opportunities for hydrogen-powered aviation present themselves as technology improves, but the industry is many years away from using it for commercial flights. However, it helps that startups and agencies are working on prototypes. The push for sustainable fuel for transportation may hasten development.
As of 2023, commercial airlines are on track to roll out hydrogen-powered aircraft in another decade. The partnership between Airbus and CFM International is one of the most extensive programs for hydrogen aviation, and its prototype is set to take flight in 2035 at the earliest. This estimate is based on current projects and plans, so it’s not set in stone.
What’s the Cause of the Delay?
Even though reducing the emissions airlines produce during flights is essential, it’s only part of the issue. The industry also needs to pay attention to where they get their energy from. While hydrogen can be very sustainable, there’s no guarantee it will be. This is because processing it uses energy from sources like renewables, natural gas or coal. The “green” version uses wind or solar, making it the most sustainable.
It’s one of the most plentiful elements on Earth, but — like most other things — airlines have to pay more if they want to choose the eco-friendly option. The “gray” version is the most available and comes from natural gas. The market price is usually a little under $1 per pound, while the “green” type can cost anywhere from $4 to $10 on average. The price will likely lower as it becomes more common in the industry, but as of 2023, most countries must pay top dollar.
On top of the hefty price tag, transporting it can be challenging. One molecule of hydrogen only has about one-fourth the energy available compared to a single molecule of jet fuel, so planes powered by it can only travel 25% of the distance on the same amount of fuel. Extra storage is necessary to offset this, but the logistics of putting a ton of specialized tanks on an aircraft is tricky.
It may be the lightest element known to man, but packing it on a flight takes up space. While it technically outperforms the competition by its power-to-weight ratio, it loses its advantage when it has to sit in heavy containers.
What Can We Expect from Hydrogen Flying?
The aviation industry can use hydrogen as fuel or for electricity. It’s a pretty flexible element, so aircraft engineers have a few options for using it. Many airlines are already trying it out, with some using fuel cells as a sustainable power source for their aircraft. It’s the only way large passenger planes can boast net zero emissions as of 2023.
While they typically use hydrogen in its gas form, it has much more energy density in a liquid state. It can perform better that way. Still, making the switch isn’t all that simple.
Aircraft must store liquid hydrogen in tanks at temperatures as low as -487° Fahrenheit. It’s not ideal, but it doesn’t rule it out as an option. Engineers and manufacturers must either work around its limitations or redesign future aircraft to accommodate the special storage.
Many companies are working to perfect the design and function of hydrogen-powered airplanes. It probably won’t impact consumers much, but the aviation industry could have big ripples. As the technology becomes more common and more airlines adopt it, a massive chunk of greenhouse emissions could practically disappear.
Although regular airline passengers shouldn’t expect to hop on one within the next few years, they can look forward to the future. Its widespread use is a real possibility as more people get involved.
The What and Why of Hydrogen Aviation
It will be a few years before hydrogen power really starts appearing in aviation, but development is moving quickly. Many companies are on board with sustainable fuel alternatives. On top of that, big names in the industry have committed to positive change. Commercial airlines might soon fly with hydrogen.
Article by Jane Marsh
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of