Hydrogen-Powered Planes

1. Sustainability Problem:

Commercial aviation before the COVID-19 pandemic made up around 2.5% of total global carbon dioxide emissions. Even though the aviation industry has seen significant decreases in carbon dioxide emissions since the mid-90s, the industry has also witnessed an overwhelmingly large amount of new passengers within the past few decades. By 2050, the industry is predicted to transport around 10 billion passengers a year. A zero carbon future is on the horizon for many countries and companies around the world, however, certain industries will undoubtedly struggle more than others to become net-zero. Aviation is at the forefront of industries that create a large carbon footprint, but look nearly impossible to electrify, especially in the near future.

2. Sustainable Technology: ZeroAvia (HyFlyer 1)

ZeroAvia, a startup from California, has designed a commercial-scale plane that runs on hydrogen. Recently, a six-seater Piper M-Class plane completed its first voyage in the UK, making it the first passenger hydrogen fuel cell-powered plane to take flight. The company retrofits existing planes with its hydrogen-electric technology, which will speed up the timeline of scaling the systems. The company has its own airport (Cranfield Airport) in the UK, and works with the European Marine Energy Center to develop the new technology. The airport is a completely self-sufficient hydrogen airport, with its own liquid hydrogen storage facilities, refueling trucks, and electrolysis-based hydrogen generator.

  • Hydrogen has an incredible amount of energy per unit of mass; experts believe that it is three times more powerful than conventional jet fuel, and over 100 times more powerful than lithium-ion batteries.
  • Fortunately for the environment, clean water is the only waste product from using hydrogen as an energy source. It can be used in two different power applications; hydrogen can be used to power a fuel cell, in order to produce electricity (which is what ZeroAvia has used), or it can be directly combusted for motive power.
  • The UK government is working with ZeroAvia to develop a hydrogen-electric (fuel cell) powertrain, that will be capable of carrying 20 passengers nearly 400 nautical miles. ZeroAvia’s CEO expects that the company will meet this goal by 2023, and will be able to carry 80 passengers 500 nautical miles by 2026.
  • A challenge in using hydrogen within the aviation industry is its high expense. Experts at McKinsey believe liquid hydrogen will remain at least twice as expensive as fossil fuels within the next couple of decades. Additionally, the energy density of liquid hydrogen is about a quarter of that of jet fuel. This means that the same amount of energy requires a tank four times the size of that found on a traditional plane.
  • Airbus is another company that is investing significant funds into hydrogen-powered aviation. In 2020, the company announced their ZeroE program, which will use hydrogen-fueled propulsion systems in future aircrafts. Airbus has plans to build three concept planes by 2030, all of which are expected to hold 100 to 200 passengers, and reach a distance of around 1,000 nautical miles.
  • Airbus plans to use a hydrogen-hybrid in all of their planes. The company will use gas-turbine engines, which burn liquid hydrogen as its fuel source, but will also be able to generate electricity through hydrogen fuel cells.

“A record-breaking commercial-scale hydrogen plane has taken off in the UK, with more set to join it soon. How far can such planes go in cutting the aviation industry’s emissions?” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210401-the-worlds-first-commercial-hydrogen-plane), BBC: Future Planet

3. Stakeholders:

  • Local residents
  • Airline companies
  • Oil and gas companies
  • Utility companies
  • Travelers

4. Technology Implementation:

1. ZeroAvia must work to gain investors to help fund the development of future design and building plans.

2. The company should continue to test different hydrogen-powered propulsion systems, and add additional weight to each flight, in order to test for lift capabilities and stress on the powertrain.

3. ZeroAvia should work to advertise their technology. From increasing the marketability of the company, they will gain public support and growing interest by investors, community members, and other companies.





2 thoughts on “Hydrogen-Powered Planes

  1. It’s great that hydrogen-powered jet planes are gaining traction, however the concept is still a ways from it becoming cost competitive with an uphill battle with its low energy density. I agree with your suggestions for deployment strategy. In order for this clean air travel to become a reality, there needs to be continued investment in scaling up development as well as marketing themselves as a pioneer in the field (in the sky).


  2. This a thorough overview of the environmental benefits of hydrogen planes. Given that the airline industry is extremely cost-competitive today, stakeholders will need to find a method to remove the green premium of hydrogen produced via electrolysis. With Airbus aiming to deploy hydryogen-powered planes by 2035, the increased cost for hydrogen could be offset by national cap and trade programs or other policy measures that raise the cost of traditional fuels. Great work!


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