Rolls-Royce and European low-cost carrier easyJet have performed the first-ever operation of a prototype aircraft engine powered by green hydrogen. The ground test, conducted at a military aircraft testing site in Boscombe Down, England, was hailed by the companies as “a new aviation milestone” and a major step towards the introduction of zero emission hydrogen propulsion systems for aircraft. The test was conducted using a converted Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A engine and followed the recent establishment by Rolls-Royce and easyJet of a partnership to research hydrogen propulsion for aircraft such as the Airbus A320-family of narrowbody jets operated by the airline. The engine test also coincided with other initiatives designed to progress hydrogen-powered aviation. In Hamburg, Lufthansa Technik has just converted a decommissioned A320 to test ground processes for future hydrogen-powered aircraft, while hydrogen propulsion company ZeroAvia has partnered with the UK’s AGS Airports to investigate hydrogen fuelling infrastructure.
The engine used for the Rolls-Royce and easyJet test was a modified version of a powerplant typically used by high-speed turboprop aircraft, including the SAAB 2000 regional airliner and the Lockheed C130J military transporter. The companies are now planning more rig tests, ahead of a full-scale ground trial using a Rolls-Royce Pearl 15 jet engine, a new powerplant designed to extend the range of Bombardier Global 5500 and 6500 corporate jets. The longer-term aim is to undertake flight tests and eventually to develop hydrogen engines for larger planes. Green hydrogen for the Boscombe Down test was provided by the European Marine Energy Centre and generated by wind and tidal power at its test facility on Eday, part of the Orkney Islands that lie north of the Scottish mainland.
Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer, Rolls-Royce, described the engine test as “an incredible start” to the new partnership with easyJet. “The success of this hydrogen test is an exciting milestone. We are pushing the boundaries to discover the zero carbon possibilities of hydrogen, which could help reshape the future of flight,” she said.
Johan Lundgren, easyJet’s CEO, said his airline was committed to supporting the research “because hydrogen offers great possibilities for a range of aircraft, including easyJet-sized aircraft. That will be a huge step forward in meeting the challenge of net zero by 2050.”
Both organisations have signed up to the UN-backed Race to Zero campaign that commits them to achieve the net zero carbon emissions target.
In Hamburg, an Airbus A320 operated by Lufthansa for 30 years has been converted into the Hydrogen Aviation Lab (HAL), a mobile laboratory designed to test maintenance and ground handling processes for future aircraft powered by hydrogen. The initiative is a collaboration between Lufthansa Technik, which has converted the jet into a research platform, Hamburg Airport, an early adopter of low-or-no carbon practices, and two major research groups, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Hamburg’s ZAL Centre for Applied Aeronautical Research. It was funded by Hamburg’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Innovation and IFB Hamburg, the city’s investment and development bank.
While this particular jet will never fly again, it will be equipped in coming months with test systems, an internal tank for liquid hydrogen and an onboard fuel cell compatible with ground-based hydrogen infrastructure, to help prepare both airlines and airports for new zero-emission aircraft. The testbed plane will be towed between the Lufthansa Technik base and locations on the airport as part of the study of future ground management processes. Research will include integration of hydrogen fuel systems into existing airport infrastructure, safe and efficient refuelling of aircraft with liquid hydrogen, cooling and insulation of the fuel, and inert storage of hydrogen.
“We’ve enabled a unique project,” said Michael Westhagemann, Hamburg’s Senator for Economic Affairs. “It will make a valuable contribution to enabling the use of hydrogen as a fuel for aviation. The focus on maintenance and refuelling procedures should provide us with insights that will be important for developing hydrogen infrastructure. This real-world lab lets us add a crucial building block to Hamburg’s strategy to make aviation more sustainable. We are following two strategic goals – the development of a hydrogen economy in Hamburg and the decarbonisation of the mobility industries. We are very pleased to make this world-first project possible through the Special Aviation Fund.”
The Hydrogen Aviation Lab jet will also be used for research into predictive maintenance methods for future generations of aircraft, with a ‘digital twin’ of the decommissioned A320 to be used to help predict failures of hydrogen components and systems, and enable timely responses.
In another research project, aero-hydrogen propulsion pioneer ZeroAvia has partnered with AGS Airports, which owns and operates Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton airports in the UK, to investigate the development of hydrogen fuel infrastructure, regulatory requirements and resources needed to deliver zero-emission flights. Their focus will be on short-haul hydrogen-powered flights from Aberdeen and Glasgow.
“In recent months, we have stepped up our work with airports significantly to better understand the operational needs and requirements for hydrogen as a fuel,” said Arnab Chatterjee, ZeroAvia’s VP Infrastructure. “Working with the team at AGS allows us to plan for some of the commercial routes that we will be able to support in a little over two years’ time, and to do so in the setting of a major international airport.”
The CEO of AGS Airports, Derek Provan, said the development of hydrogen-propulsion was becoming “an increasingly viable option” for regional and short-haul aircraft. “As a regional airport group serving the highlands and islands of Scotland as well as the Channel Islands from Southampton, AGS will be the perfect testbed for hydrogen flight,” he said. “Through our partnership with ZeroAvia we’ll address some of the challenges associated with the generation, delivery and storage of hydrogen on site, and how we can prepare our infrastructure to support zero emission flights.”
Photo: Ground testing of the converted Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A regional aircraft engine