How are airplanes developed?

Airbus, Boeing & Co want to fly with hydrogen soon

Emission-free aircraft are a major challenge for the industry. Manufacturers are working on different concepts. But airports must also become more innovative than before.

This is how Airbus envisions a possible hydrogen-based aircraft.

Photo: Airbus S.A.S.

Hydrogen as an energy source for aircraft is not a relic of our day. The oil crisis already provided momentum. From 1988 a Tupolev Tu-155 flew in what was then the Soviet Union, first with liquid hydrogen and later with liquid natural gas. It remained with the thoroughly successful experiment; The test machine completed 100 flights. Nevertheless, it was not further developed at the time. More than 30 years later, the European Commission has adopted a hydrogen strategy - and aircraft manufacturers have to react, albeit in very different ways. An overview of what is going on in the industry.

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Airbus: In search of propulsion systems

In its “Zero E” concept, Airbus relies on hydrogen as an energy carrier for drive systems. He wants to bring such machines onto the market by 2035. The industry giant speculates about different concepts and also considers different drive systems to be possible.

This includes, quite surprisingly, an aircraft with six propellers under the wings. Each of these units has its own drive system. It consists of the hydrogen tank itself, fuel cells, an electric motor, a propeller and electronic control components. Airbus cites space for 100 passengers, a range of around 1,850 kilometers and a speed of 600 kilometers per hour as planned key data. This severely restricts possible areas of application. However, the technical hurdles with the turboprop concept are low. And there is another major advantage: each of the nacelles with propeller, tank and electronics can be removed separately from the aircraft and serviced - or replaced - without great effort.

Turbofans, also known as turbofans, are to be used in the second scenario. They are operated with hydrogen. Airbus lists 120 to 200 passengers as the planned capacity of its new aircraft. The range should be 3,700 kilometers. Such propulsion systems can be found today in all larger passenger or transport aircraft, but with kerosene as fuel.

But the group is also thinking about so-called blended wing body pilots. They are reminiscent of flying wing aircraft, as we know them from military aircraft construction. It should also take up to 200 passengers and cover a maximum of 3,700 kilometers. Pure flying wings have a lower lift capacity in slow flight, which is why a number of modifications are planned here. Airbus wants to decide on its further strategy by 2025.

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Will Dornier also soon be on the move with hydrogen?

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the engine manufacturer MTU Aero Engines are again planning to make a Dornier 228 fit for hydrogen. Your test aircraft will be equipped with fuel cells and an electric propeller drive. If everything goes according to plan, it will take off for the first time in 2026.

Zero Avia relies on hydrogen and batteries

Manufacturers of smaller aircraft are also quite open to innovations. Zero Avia took a Piper M into the air with hydrogen-powered fuel cells and batteries. The group has a special target group in its sights. He wants to bring ten to 20 people a maximum of 900 kilometers. The plan is to install the new propulsion system in normal aircraft from 2023.

Boeing chooses a different route

Sustainability is also one of the corporate goals at Boeing. The group does not rely on hydrogen, but on biofuels. By 2030, all of the Group's aircraft should be on the move; Mixtures are already possible today. Boeing names waste from food production, agriculture and forestry as possible raw materials for biokerosene.

Airports also need to rethink

Regardless of the manufacturer or the drive system, hydrogen has a completely different downside: The energy source must be available locally, at both small and large airports. Airports have to start thinking about how to change their own infrastructures. That doesn't work overnight either. Air France-KLM, Airbus, the operating company Groupe ADP and the Paris region are setting a good example. They want to investigate how hydrogen can be stored and distributed. Now they are looking for partners for the ambitious model project.

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By Michael van den Heuvel