A UK government-backed aerospace research project has unveiled a midsize, liquid hydrogen-powered, zero-carbon concept aircraft capable of flying up to 279 passengers non-stop from London to destinations as far away as San Francisco or Beijing, or around the world to Auckland with just one stop. Led by the government-funded Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), a team of around 100 UK aerospace and aviation experts have collaborated on the FlyZero project to demonstrate the huge potential of liquid hydrogen in regional, short-haul and long-haul flight. Detailed findings from the project are due to be published in early 2022, including on regional and narrowbody as well as midsize concept aircraft, technology roadmaps, market and economic reports, and a sustainability assessment. The midsize unveiling coincides with the fourth meeting of the government/industry Jet Zero Council that has been tasked by the UK prime minister of developing a zero-emission transatlantic aircraft “within a generation”. The government has also announced the eight winning proposals that will share £15 million ($20m) in funding towards the development of sustainable aviation fuel production plants in the UK.
“Fuelling planes sustainably will enable the public to travel as we do now, but in a way that doesn’t damage the planet,” forecast Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK government’s Business Secretary. “It will not only help us to end our contribution to climate change, but also represents a huge industrial opportunity for the UK.”
He said the FlyZero concept aircraft could define the future of aerospace and aviation. “By working with industry, we are showing that truly carbon-free flight could be possible, with hydrogen a front-runner to replace conventional fossil fuels.”
Liquid hydrogen is described by the ATI as a lightweight fuel with three times the energy of kerosene and sixty times the energy of batteries per kilogramme and emits no CO2 when burned. Realising a midsize longer-range aircraft also allows concentration of new fuelling infrastructure to fewer international airports that could help accelerate the rollout of a global network of zero-carbon emission flights to tackle hard-to-abate emissions from long-haul flights, it adds.
The 279-passenger (pax) midsize aircraft concept has a range of 5,250 nautical miles and so would sit between the 244-pax/4,700nm Airbus A321 XLR and the 296-pax/7,560nm Boeing 787-9. ATI says the midsize concept would meet the demands of a unique sector of the market between single aisle and widebody aircraft operations, which together account for 93% of aviation’s carbon emissions.
The liquid hydrogen fuel would be stored in cryogenic fuel tanks at around minus 250 degrees C in the aft fuselage and two smaller ‘cheek’ tanks along the forward fuselage. The cheek tanks also serve to keep the aircraft balanced as the fuel burns off and eliminate the need for any additional aerodynamic structures. The concept aircraft’s 54-metre wingspan – compared to the 787-9’s 60 metres – carries two turbofan engines powered by hydrogen combustion.
FlyZero believes this new generation of hydrogen-powered aircraft will be able to benefit from the lower fuel supply costs that will come as other sectors also move towards hydrogen energy. As well as being zero emissions, they will also have superior operating economics than conventional aircraft from the mid-2030s onwards, it says.
“At a time of global focus on tackling climate change, our midsize concept sets out a truly revolutionary vision for the future of global air travel, keeping families, businesses and nations connected without the carbon footprint,” said FlyZero Project Director Chris Gear. “This new dawn for aviation brings with it real opportunities for the UK aerospace sector to secure market share, highly skilled jobs and inward investment, while helping to meet the UK’s commitments to fight climate change.”
Added the government’s Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps: “This pioneering design for a liquid hydrogen-powered aircraft, led by a British organisation, brings us one step closer to a future where people can continue to travel and connect, but without the carbon footprint.”
The fourth meeting is due to take place today of the Jet Zero Council, a partnership between government and industry, which is co-chaired by Shapps and Kwarteng. “I will continue to work closely with the Council to support the UK’s world-leading research in this sector, which will create green jobs, help us meet our ambitious net zero targets and lead the global transition to net zero aviation,” said Shapps.
Commenting on the FlyZero concept aircraft, the Council’s CEO, Emma Gilthorpe, who is also COO of Heathrow Airport, said: “This ground-breaking green technology looks set to play a critical role in decarbonising flight and through the work of the Council, the UK aviation sector is exploring all avenues to ensure we protect the benefits of flying for future generations while cutting the carbon cost.”
Low-cost carrier easyJet, which is a member of the Council, welcomed the concept aircraft development as it sees hydrogen-powered aircraft playing an important role in its decarbonisation pathway. The airline has seconded one of its pilots, Debbie Thomas, to the project to use her engineering background and flying experience.
“The concept aircraft demonstrates the huge potential of green liquid hydrogen for aviation, including larger gauge aircraft, and I’m very excited to see where we go from here,” said David Morgan, Director of Flight Operations at easyJet. “We are closely involved in the work of the ATI and its FlyZero project and we look forward to continuous collaboration to make -zero-carbon emission flights a reality as soon as possible.”
FlyZero was launched by the government in July 2020 as a 12-month project, with the outputs to be made available for further development and exploitation, and the benefits shared with a wide cross-section of stakeholders to support growth in the UK. Funding has been committed to the ATI until 2030 under a recent government spending review, although details have yet to be released. To date, £1.6 billion ($2.1bn) has been awarded to over 340 collaborative R&D projects across all UK regions, with the aim of supporting the development of innovative aerospace technologies in line with the government’s commitment to reducing aviation emissions whilst driving growth.
As well as backing the FlyZero liquid hydrogen aircraft project, the government is also funding projects looking to develop sustainable aviation fuel production plants in the UK through its £15 million Green Fuels, Green Skies Competition. The following eight companies have been awarded grants towards projects with their early-stage development:
Advanced Biofuel Solutions (£2,054,000)
alfanar Energy (£2,417,500)
Fulcrum BioEnergy (£1,372,957)
Green Fuels Research (£1,940,255)
LanzaTech UK (£3,152,619)
LanzaTech UK and Carbon Engineering (£340,674)
Nova Pangaea Technologies (£484,201)
Velocys Projects (£2,381,000)
Research has indicated that by 2040, a UK SAF sector could generate between £0.7 billion and £1.66 billion a year for the economy, with potentially half of this coming from the export of intellectual property and the provision of engineering services, and create between 5,000 and 11,000 green jobs.
Photo: The JetZero midsize concept aircraft