Flight of fancy: why airlines say ‘hydrogen’ might be the fuel of the future

Could hydrogen-powered planes soon help pilots save enough fuel to increase US energy independence, go green while you fly, and lower emissions significantly enough to bring air travel into the 21st century? Yes, it is starting to look like the “new fuel of the future” to the jet fuel and aviation industries — but the first aircraft that will run on hydrogen and emit “scrubber-free” carbon dioxide (CO2) still have a long way to go.

A recent study released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Committee for Clean Air in Air Transport (COCAAT) showed that global airlines have the potential to save an additional 400,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of fuel every year by 2025. That’s nearly as much energy as the world’s petrochemical industries currently produce, even though global industry is adding oil production in an attempt to outdo ever-rising oil prices.

Aviation is the fastest-growing source of CO2 in the world, leading to an estimated 250 million metric tons (MT) of CO2 annually (3.7% of the total amount of CO2 emitted globally), even though it generates less than 1% of global passenger demand. Achieving its ambitions for zero-CO2 air transport is not as simple as simply switching from the fossil fuel that currently fuels its operations. The industry needs to redesign how we operate and fly. Although there are other technologies available that could potentially expand its power, IATA’s research clearly shows that researchers believe the idea of “hot fusion” and “scrubber-free aviation” is still on the cutting edge.

By the 2030s, IATA estimates that by fuel/miles flown, the biofuel sector could deliver greenhouse gas (GHG) savings equivalent to the CO2 the airline industry emits per 100,000 passengers annually (1,600 MT CO2 equivalent). Based on these estimates, all of the technologies researchers currently have in development could be possible by then — but there are several firsts that they will need to overcome.

The researchers also showed how much additional CO2 emissions would need to be reduced from today’s operations before biofuels could significantly help out. Carbon emissions from airplane operations require more than 20,000 kilograms of C02 in energy to make any flight (making biofuels less feasible). While increased synthetic chemicals (synthetic fuels composed of biomass and other “triggers”) could be carbon-neutral if their contents are readily available in sustainable alternatives, current extraction methods are too complicated and too expensive for widespread commercialization. Furthermore, the most available sources of biomass and catalysts for industrial recovery were found to be almost entirely biomass/synthetic, which left the search for next-generation sources of carbon-neutral fuels at an an unfulfilled end.

Through further discoveries and development of pilot test models, IATA believes that more than 200 MWh of energy could be saved annually by 2025, for a total of 720 MWh of energy saved by 2030. IATA also believes that biofuels will continue to reduce fuel consumption in the long term, but that biofuels may need to be refined by engines before that process makes sense for an airline’s operations. Current research anticipates that “surface acres of biomass/airplane fuel to fly per hour could reach a limit of about 100,000 acres/month by 2030”, although more countries continue to research land use changes to find sufficient “airplane by-product” production possibilities to eventually absorb most new airline demand.

It’s now clear that IATA’s recommendations for the future of airplane operations will no doubt play a major role in determining how airline companies ultimately develop their operations, both with regards to current fuel utilization and fuel efficiency. The study “Emission Reduction Potential of Low-Carbon Aviation Fuels,” published last week by IATA, provides further evidence that reducing emissions is not a trivial task. But with more and more advancements in technology and better models of tomorrow’s flying operations, it remains a challenge, which IATA and the industry will have to solve together.

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