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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jasper Jolly

Airbus boss warns of delay in decarbonising airline industry

An artist's impression of an hydrogen-powered Airbus
An artist’s impression of an Airbus A380 with a fifth, hydrogen-powered engine mounted on the fuselage for testing. Photograph: Airbus/AFP/Getty Images

The launch of commercial flights of aircraft designed to reduce aviation’s damaging impact on the climate could be delayed by a shortage of net zero fuels, the chief executive of Airbus has warned.

Speaking at a briefing about the European manufacturer’s emissions-cutting plans on Wednesday, Guillaume Faury said he had concerns about the pace of investment in facilities to produce “green” hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Aviation is proving to be one of the hardest industries to decarbonise because battery technology is not yet advanced enough to power aeroplanes beyond relatively short journeys.

Green hydrogen, produced from water using zero-carbon electricity, offers one possible solution, while SAF, made with plant sources or using carbon from the air, can be used in existing gas turbine engines without adding to the total carbon in the atmosphere.

Airbus has said it aims to fly zero-emissions hydrogen aircraft in commercial service by 2035 but Faury said a lack of green production of the gas “could be a reason for delaying the launch of the programme”.

He said: “Availability or lack of availability of clean hydrogen at the right quantity in the right place at the right price in the second half of the decade is a big concern for me. 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, and probably many other sectors much earlier.”

Several companies are trying to develop hydrogen technology. The British engineering company Rolls-Royce and the airline easyJet on Monday announced they had started the world’s first ground tests of an aircraft engine run on hydrogen combustion. Airbus is working with the US multinational GE and the French engine manufacturer Safran to mount a hydrogen combustion engine on an A380 superjumbo. Airbus’s biggest rival, Boeing, has made some tentative steps towards testing hydrogen technologies, although it is more focused on SAF.

Airbus on Wednesday said it was working on an aircraft engine powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, which produces electricity with water as the only emission, to start flight tests in about 2026. The propeller engine could potentially power a 100-passenger aircraft with a range of 1,000 nautical miles, the company said, although it would be unlikely to ever be used for long-haul flights because of the amount of hydrogen storage that would be required.

The manufacturer also said it would work with the French carmaker Renault on battery technology including solid-state batteries. These could store twice the energy in the same weight as the lithium ion batteries used in cars.

The industry’s preferred method for decarbonising long-haul flights is SAF. New Airbus planes are certified to fly using as much as 50% of SAF already but Faury said the company was not pushing to certify them for 100% SAF flights as quickly as possible because it did not foresee enough supply by 2030. Airbus announced it had signed a preliminary agreement with Neste, an oil refining company, to work together to advance SAF production.

“By 2030, SAF will need to be produced at many times the level of today,” Faury said. “Ambition is not yet matched by action. There needs to be more investment in new refineries and production facilities, and more ambitious mandates and objectives for sustainable aviation fuel.

“I believe it is difficult to overstate the scale of the energy challenge.”

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