In 2021, we can look forward to two potential low-carbon aviation aerospace innovations squaring up to one another: hydrogen power versus electric.
There’s no doubt that 2020 was a tough year for the aerospace industry, as airlines cancel or delay new purchases while they deal with the COVID-related collapse in international air travel.
But innovation must continue and, longer-term, a much more pressing issue facing airlines – and the aerospace industry in general – is how to reduce their carbon footprint.
Airbus: in the hydrogen corner
Airbus is committing itself to a hydrogen-powered route to low-emissions commercial flights. It’s unveiled three concept aircraft that it says could be in commercial service by 2035.
All three planes will be powered by gas turbine engines running liquid hydrogen, and via electric power created from hydrogen fuel cells.
The most powerful will be a turbofan plane that aims to carry 200 passengers and offers a 2000-mile range.
The problem for Airbus is one of infrastructure. At the moment, significant production of hydrogen is reliant on fossil fuels; for it to be a fully low-carbon fuel, ways to extract lots of hydrogen from renewable sources must be found.
Secondly, governments, airlines and airports will all have to invest significantly in hydrogen aviation refuelling infrastructure for the whole industry to switch to hydrogen effectively. And that could prove quite a challenge.
Rolls-Royce: going for the electric choice
Rolls-Royce, a stalwart of conventional jet and turbofan engine design, is pushing the envelope with electric aircraft. It’s building what it hopes will become the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft.
Called the Spirit of Innovation, the plane is a small single-seat sports airframe. It’s powered by three lightweight electric motors that develop a maximum of 1000hp and aims to fly in excess of 300mph.
Rolls-Royce also says the aircraft’s motor develops its power at a lower rpm, meaning the potential for a quieter, more stable flight experience than with a conventionally engined similar aircraft.
Its 6,000 battery cells should provide it with enough range for 200 miles, or the equivalent of a trip from London to Paris.