Airbus has entered into a range of new industrial partnerships to help progress aviation’s transition to zero emission operations, focusing on sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen and electric propulsion, hydrogen infrastructure at airports and disruptive aeronautical technologies. The initiatives were announced during the annual Airbus Summit, a two-day programme of technical briefings at the airframer’s headquarters in Toulouse. To help accelerate the development and global supply of SAF, and approval of 100% SAF use for commercial flights, Airbus has partnered with renewable fuels group Neste. It has also revealed plans for a new hydrogen cell engine, a partnership with ArianeGroup to develop liquid hydrogen fuelling infrastructure for aircraft and collaboration with HyPort on hydrogen production and distribution at airports to generate zero-emission power for ground service vehicles. On hybrid-electric aircraft development, Airbus has signed a R&D agreement with Renault Group to focus on energy management and battery technologies.
Opening the Summit, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said for the vision of a net zero aviation industry to become a reality, this decade had to be a time of fast and far-reaching change. He said this year had seen strong and accelerated progress on sustainability, noting the sector had united around a viable net zero roadmap, the Toulouse Declaration agreement of 42 countries earlier in the year to reach carbon neutrality for commercial aviation by 2050 and the adoption by ICAO in the autumn of a Long Term Aspirational Goal.
However, he said, realistically the industry was not yet on track to meet its net zero target. “That’s why it’s all about speed and acceleration. By 2030, SAF will need to be produced at many times the level of today. Our vision is not yet matched by action. There needs to be more investment in refineries and production facilities, and more ambitious mandates and objectives for SAF. Similarly, the infrastructure for producing and distributing green hydrogen is still in the early stages of development but the clock is ticking for it to be in place to fuel commercial aviation by the 2030s.
“It is difficult to understate the scale of the energy challenge. According to the IEA, the international clean energy investment will need to reach $4 trillion annually by 2030 for governments to be on track for net zero but currently the figure is projected reach only half of that.
“In the face of multiple crises, governments and the aerospace industry are taking collective action to tackle climate change and improve energy reliability and energy security. The pace of change may feel uncomfortable but radical change always is, so this must just be the beginning and we at Airbus are pushing for even greater speed.”
Airbus used the event to announce a slew of new initiatives. The Airbus partnership with Neste, its second with the SAF producer, is designed to increase production and use of the fuel to help reduce aircraft emissions. The companies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to explore “concrete SAF projects and business opportunities”, concentrating on technical development of SAF, fuel approval and testing of current and future production technologies, and advancing the enablement of 100% SAF operations before the end of the decade, doubling the current approved maximum of 50%.
“SAF is one of aerospace’s most promising decarbonisation solutions that can be used in both in-service aircraft fleets and those of tomorrow,” said Julie Kitcher, Airbus EVP Communications and Corporate Affairs. “We are honoured to be partnering with Neste to drive forward the development and uptake of SAF to stimulate the creation of a commercially viable market for renewable aviation fuels.”
Thorsten Lange, Neste’s EVP, Renewable Aviation, said the expansion of SAF production and use needed cooperation between partners across the aviation industry. “This collaboration with Airbus connects a pioneer in the aerospace industry with a leader in renewable fuels,” he said. “The combined knowledge and expertise of the companies will help advance the use and availability of SAF as a means of transitioning aviation towards more sustainable energy sources and reducing the climate impact of aviation.”
To progress the use of hydrogen propulsion in commercial aviation, a key priority for Airbus as it develops its ZEROe family of aircraft, the company has announced three initiatives – a partnership with ArianeGroup to build the first liquid hydrogen refuelling facility for the new planes, a collaboration with HyPort to develop hydrogen production and distribution stations to power airport service vehicles and its own plans to develop a hydrogen fuel cell-powered aircraft engine.
ArianeGroup, a joint venture of Airbus and the aerospace company Safran, specialises in space propulsion technologies. It is the prime contractor for Ariane launch vehicles, which for more than 40 years have been fuelled by liquid hydrogen. ArianeGroup will design, produce and support the operations of the first liquid hydrogen refuelling facility for Airbus ZEROe aircraft. The facility will be located at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport and is expected be operational by 2025 when a ZEROe demonstrator is due to begin ground and flight tests.
Sabine Klauke, Chief Technical Officer for Airbus, said many of the technologies required for a zero-emission aircraft were already available in other industries. “Preparing for the entry into service of a zero-emission aircraft in 2035 means that we need to mature all of the required technologies in parallel,” she said. “By partnering with ArianeGroup, we will leverage well-known hydrogen expertise and other relevant space technologies in the pursuit of this goal.”
Andre-Hubert Roussel, ArianeGroup’s CEO, said aviation and space were both pioneering industries. “ArianeGroup, with its unique skills and know-how in the storage, testing and use of liquid hydrogen, enables new industrial sectors in Europe to accelerate their energy transition,” he said. “We are proud to be working with Airbus on these first steps towards liquid-hydrogen powered aircraft. Uniting our expertise is our responsibility to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.”
Airbus has also inked a partnership with energy group HyPort to progress development of hydrogen production and distribution systems at airports, to provide zero-emission fuel for ground service vehicles. HyPort is a joint venture between renewable energy group ENGIE Solutions and a major green hydrogen provider in France, the Regional Agency for Energy and Climate in Occitanie (AREC). Earlier this year, and also at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, the company constructed a low carbon hydrogen production and distribution station to produce some 400 kg of hydrogen per day to fuel about 50 airport vehicles. Production, storage and distribution systems are now being tested before the facility is activated early next year.
To help prepare for hydrogen-powered aircraft, Airbus is engaging with HyPort to develop a plan to expand hydrogen-fuelled ground operations to other locations. The collaboration will also enable the creation of a development blueprint, detailing requirements and providing guidance on key issues including operational safety, regulatory compliance, social acceptance and indicative financial investments required for widespread deployment of hydrogen at airports.
“Using hydrogen to decarbonise all airport-associated ground transport in the 2020 to 2030 timeframe will pave the way for hydrogen availability for zero-emission aircraft by 2035,” said Karine Guenan, VP ZEROe Ecosystem, Airbus. She said the HyPort partnership demonstrated “tangible progress” by Airbus in securing future energy ecosystems, having launched in 2020 its ‘Hydrogen Hub at Airports’ plan to identify future infrastructure requirements. That initiative has led to partnerships with airport authorities, airlines and energy providers across Europe, Asia-Pacific and North America.
As well as hydrogen infrastructure partnerships, Airbus also used its industry summit to announce it is developing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine as “one of the potential solutions” to equip its planned ZEROe aircraft. Ground and flight testing of the engine will occur towards the middle of the decade, it said, using the Airbus A380 MSN 1 hydrogen testbed aircraft, which is now being modified to carry liquid hydrogen fuel tanks and their distribution systems.
“We are focused on developing and testing this technology to understand if it is feasible and viable for a 2035 entry into service of a zero-emission aircraft,” said Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus VP Zero Emission Aircraft. “At scale, and if the technology targets were achieved, fuel cell engines may be able to power a 100-passenger aircraft with a range of approximately 1,000 nautical miles. By continuing to invest in this technology we are giving ourselves additional options that will inform our decisions on the architecture of our future ZEROe aircraft, the development of which we intend to launch in the 2027-2028 timeframe.”
Airbus is also exploring electric aviation and has signed a research and development agreement with vehicle manufacturer Renault Group to accelerate the electrification plans of both companies. Their partnership will focus on common factors impacting electric transportation including energy storage and optimisation, battery weight reduction, and the transition from today’s lithium-ion cells to solid-state designs, which could potentially double energy density of batteries by 2030. The companies will also assess the full lifecycles of future batteries, from production to recycling.
Airbus’ Sabine Klauke said: “Bringing together Renault Group’s experience in electric vehicles with our own track record in electric flight demonstrators will allow us to accelerate the development of the disruptive technologies required for future hybrid aircraft architectures in the 2030s and beyond. It will also foster the emergence of common technical and regulatory standards in support of the clean mobility solutions needed to achieve our climate targets.”
Gilles Le Borgne, Renault Group’s EVP Engineering, said the partnership with Airbus was driven by a common ambition to innovate while reducing the carbon footprints of both companies. “Our 10 years of experience in the electric vehicle chain gives us some of the strongest feedback from the field and expertise in performance of battery management systems,” he said. “Our engineering teams are exchanging with those of Airbus to converge transversal technologies that will enable both hybrid aircraft to be operated and the vehicles of tomorrow to be developed.”
In a further initiative to promote new technologies, Airbus announced that it would start flight tests by the end of this year with DisruptiveLab, a new testbed helicopter developed to assess innovations to improve aircraft performance and to help reduce the carbon emissions of helicopters. It will be used to evaluate the fuel efficiency impacts of a new aerodynamic aluminium and composite fuselage, and to test a parallel hybrid propulsion system which enables the battery to be recharged in flight. More streamlined rotor blades have also been introduced to reduce aerodynamic drag and improve fuel efficiency.
“The DisruptiveLab goes a step further in Airbus Helicopters’ ambitious strategy to reduce the environmental impact of its helicopters and to lead the way towards a sustainable aerospace industry,” said Airbus Helicopters CEO Bruno Even. The combined impact of new aerodynamic design and a parallel hybrid propulsion system could result in a halving of CO2 emissions, he said.
A final announcement at the Summit was the launch of a partnership between Airbus subsidiary UpNext and CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics and best known for its Large Hadron Collider, that will evaluate how superconductivity can contribute to the decarbonisation of future aircraft systems. Superconducting technologies could drastically reduce the weight of next-generation aircraft and increase their efficiency, said CERN.
The Super-Conductor for Aviation with Low Emissions (SCALE) demonstrator aims to promote the adaptation and adoption of superconducting technologies in airborne electrical distribution systems. First results are expected by the end of 2023 and the partners are seeking to develop and test in laboratory conditions, an optimised generic superconductor cryogenic powertrain (~500kW) by the end of 2025. If the expected performances and reliability objectives are achieved, the collaboration could reach an ambitious target of flying a fully integrated prototype within the next decade.
“We are already developing a superconductivity demonstrator called ASCEND (Advanced Superconducting and Cryogenic Experimental powertrain Demonstrator) to study the feasibility of this technology for electric and hybrid aircraft,” explained Sandra Bour-Schaeffer, CEO of Airbus UpNext. “Combining knowledge obtained from our demonstrator and CERN’s unique capabilities in the field of superconductors makes for a natural partnership.”
Image: Airbus and ArianeGroup will work together to build the first liquid hydrogen refuelling facility for ZEROe aircraft at Toulouse Blagnac airport. The station will be operational in 2025
Additional reporting by Christopher Surgenor