easyJet aircraft pictured at Southend Airport in July 2020. There is excitement in some quarters about hydrogen powered aircraft and their potential.
John Keble | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Aerospace giant Rolls-Royce announced on Tuesday that it is teaming up with airline easyJet to develop and test hydrogen combustion engine technology for aircraft.
In a statement, London-listed Rolls-Royce said the two companies would work together on a series of ground tests expected to begin this year. The two companies had “a common ambition to get the technology off the ground”, he added. easyJet published the same statement on the partnership on its website.
The goal of the collaboration, called H2ZERO, “is to demonstrate that hydrogen has the potential to power a range of aircraft from the mid-2030s,” Rolls-Royce said.
According to the company – not to be confused with BMW-owned Rolls-Royce Motor Cars – the companies will this year in the UK carry out a “preliminary ground test” of a Rolls-Royce engine using technology from the hydrogen.
A full-scale ground test of the technology using a Pearl 15 jet engine will follow, with Mississippi mooted as a potential location. Tuesday’s announcement follows a Monday statement in which Rolls-Royce outlined its plans for above-ground testing.
“The technology emerging from this program has the potential to power easyJet-sized aircraft, which is why we will also be investing several million pounds in this program,” said easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren.
“In order to achieve large-scale decarbonization, progress in the development of zero-emissions technology for narrow-body aircraft is crucial,” Lundgren added.
Using hydrogen to power an internal combustion engine is different from hydrogen fuel cell technology, where gas from a tank mixes with oxygen, producing electricity.
As the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center notes, fuel cell vehicles emit “only water vapor and hot air.”
On the other hand, hydrogen ICEs can produce other emissions. “Hydrogen engines release almost zero, trace amounts of CO2…but can produce oxides of nitrogen, or NOx,” says Cummins, an engine manufacturer.
Aviation’s environmental footprint is significant, with the World Wide Fund for Nature describing it as “one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change” .
The WWF also claims that air travel is “currently the most carbon-intensive activity an individual can do.”
Earlier this year, Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, told CNBC that aviation would “potentially face significant hurdles if we fail to decarbonize at the right pace.”
Faury added that hydrogen planes represent the “ultimate solution” in the medium and long term. In May, his company announced it was launching a UK-based facility focused on hydrogen technologies.
Although some quarters are getting excited about hydrogen planes and their potential, there is still a long way to go to commercialize the technology and deploy it on a large scale.
Speaking to CNBC last October, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary appeared on the outlook for new and emerging technologies in the sector.
“I think…we should be honest again,” he said. “Certainly, for the next decade…I don’t think you’ll see that – there’s no technology that’s going to replace…carbon, jet aviation.”
“I don’t see the arrival of… hydrogen fuels, I don’t see the arrival of sustainable fuels, I don’t see the arrival of electric propulsion systems, certainly not before 2030,” O’ added. Leary.
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