Down to Earth

Hydrogen hype: Aviation's false promise?


It's the most abundant element on Earth: hydrogen. Could it help us fly commercial airplanes with zero emissions by 2035? That's the promise made by Airbus as the aviation sector faces an unprecedented crisis fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic and growing calls for a green recovery. But hydrogen is energy-hungry to produce and bulky to store. So is it a viable promise? 


Airbus made headlines when it announced in September its intention to have a zero-emission aircraft ready for passenger flights within the next 15 years. Three concept planes were presented with the most promising offering a "blended wing body" design. All of them would be fuelled by hydrogen.

Airbus's head of engineering Jean-Brice Dumont acknowledged the hydrogen used would need to be green, '"otherwise the production of hydrogen, which emits carbon dioxide, will cancel out the benefits gained in the plane, so it's a bit hypocritical''.

'Some really dizzying figures'

The cleanest way to produce hydrogen is through a process known as water electrolysis, which separates hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a water molecule. For the hydrogen to be considered green, the electricity used in the process needs to come from renewable sources.

A collective of researchers decided to calculate the amount of electricity required to power hydrogen planes at France's busiest airport, Paris-Charles de Gaulle.

Astrophysicist Mickael Coriat described the resulting numbers as dizzying.

''It would require wind turbines covering 5,000km² which corresponds to the size of an entire French department. If it were photovoltaic panels it would require an area of 1,000km². And if we decide to use nuclear energy instead, we would have to use 16 nuclear reactors to supply Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport", he explains.

2035, too late?

According to climate activists, the promise of hydrogen planes is a distraction from actions  to reduce air traffic immediately. They say 2035 is too late to have the first commercial hydrogen aircraft available. It would take many more years for entire fleets and airport infrastructure around the world to adapt. 

In recent weeks and months, activists have protested at airports around the world, calling for a drastic reduction in air travel. At Orly airport in Paris, protesters penetrated airport fences and descended onto the tarmac, promoting a rapid response from security forces.

Pauline Boyer, a spokesperson for the Alternatiba association, hasn't boarded a plane in seven years. She says it's a sacrifice but one that's needed to protect the planet.

"For the moment and in the short term, there are no environmentally friendly aircraft that allow us to continue on the current trajectory of increasing air traffic. So today we need to rethink our usage of planes as well as a global reorganisation of our society,'' Boyer concludes.

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