SustainabilityMarch 22, 2024

Hydrogen: the Future of Aviation?

The aviation sector is faced with a daunting challenge: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen is an emerging solution.
Avatar David Ziegler

According to figures from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), CO2 emissions from air travel in 2022 rose to 910 million metric tons. On the European scale, aviation is the second biggest emitter of CO2 after road transportation. In time for the Paris Air Show, Ademe—the French Agency for Ecological Transition—recently published an article in the newspaper Ouest-France, in which it stated that the 21 million metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted by the aviation sector in France accounted for 5.3% of the country’s overall emissions. Furthermore, it appears that domestic air travel accounts for 25% of those emissions. The remaining three quarters are linked to international air travel..

A Climate and Resilience law passed in France on August 22, 2021, requires airlines to offset 70% of their carbon emissions from domestic flights by 2023 and 100% by 2024, with the goal of reaching carbon neutrality for domestic flights. A variety of measures have been enacted to further accelerate efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the aviation sector, and the regulatory authority is playing an active role in that transformation.

Setting the Stage for the Emergence of Sustainable Aviation Fuels…

In its 2022 Environmental Report, the French Civil Aviation Authority indicated that the adoption of sustainable fuels in the aviation sector is gradually increasing: forecast to reach 2% by 2025, then 6% by 2030… and up to 70% by 2050 (instead of 50%), including 35% electrofuels, also known as e-fuels. “Synthetic low-carbon fuels produced using hydrogen from the nuclear power industry can be taken into account in the calculation of progress towards the goal of incorporating low-carbon fuels, as set out by the French government,” stated the report.

At this point, no one doubts the need to take action. Technological breakthroughs, new fuels, whatever the preferred scenario, the aviation industry is going to have to change, and Dassault Systèmes intends to play a pivotal role in that transformation. For this situation, hydrogen appears as an alternative fuel to be actively developed due to its several advantages offered.

The Advantages of Hydrogen for the Aviation Sector

Like any human activity, aviation is responsible for a non-negligible share of carbon (CO2) emissions at the global scale. Faced with growing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of efforts to combat global warming, the aviation industry is searching for alternatives to fossil fuels. Hydrogen stands out as an appealing option, primarily for its lack of CO2 emissions. Hydrogen burns cleanly, producing only water as a by-product, making it an environmentally-friendly energy source.

While hydrogen has a high energy density, it is far lower than that of kerosene. As a result, controlling the size of fuel tanks is a priority area of innovation when it comes to fostering the development of hydrogen as a fuel in the aviation sector. Since hydrogen engines are quieter than internal combustion engines, the reduction of noise emissions is another advantage that also addresses legitimate concerns of communities residing near airport infrastructures. In terms of global politics, the goal of reducing dependence on imported oil comes in response to an economic challenge that weighs heavily in the equation.

Ensuring the Transition to Hydrogen in the Aviation Sector

To fully take advantage of the benefits of hydrogen, aviation must undergo a significant transition. Obviously, the first step consists of developing aircraft specifically designed to use hydrogen as their fuel. Aircraft manufacturers are already working on such prototypes. Those aircrafts will need to be equipped with hydrogen tanks that are safe, and specially adapted engines. Dassault Systèmes’ solutions, which rely on both the collaborative dimension of innovation, digital simulation, and virtual twins, contribute massively to accelerating the transformation of the sector. Among the real-world examples is DragonFly, developed by Blue Spirit Aero. Expected to enter service in 2027, the Dragonfly is a lightweight aircraft designed for pilot training schools. It is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, emitting only water.

While the adoption of hydrogen appears as an essential path to explore for decarbonizing the aviation sector, there are still many hurdles to overcome. Specifically, hydrogen production is a particularly energy intensive process, and unless powered by renewable energies, the environmental benefits of hydrogen are limited. Therefore, it is essential to establish a hydrogen supply chain, from production to distribution, centered around renewable energies. This production process must be environmentally responsible to ensure the environmental sustainability of hydrogen as a fuel.

After redesigning aircraft and setting the stage for the emergence of an industry that can produce, store, and supply “clean” hydrogen, the third major challenge consists of adapting airport infrastructure to this major transformation. Airports will need to have hydrogen fueling stations so that the hydrogen fuel tanks of aircraft can be refilled promptly. This infrastructure will need to be gradually implemented. While this undertaking faces real technical and organizational challenges, hydrogen offers a sustainable and responsible outlook for the future of aviation, conditional on the rise of an industrial sector that can produce, supply, and store hydrogen without emitting CO2 in the process!

Did you find this article interesting? Learn more about the initiatives of Dassault Systèmes in support of the Aerospace and Defense industry.

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