Airbus, Aena, Air Nostrum, Iberia, Exolum and Repsol are partnering to study the creation of the first hydrogen airport hub located in Spain.

The six companies have joined forces to address the main challenges to deploy hydrogen-powered aviation in the country. This is the first time that a collaboration brings together the entire value chain from primary energy production, hydrogen ground operations, with two airlines on board and across a complete network of airports at the same time.

This collaboration will provide the partners with a holistic view of the hydrogen-powered aircraft and how it can be integrated into the airport ecosystem. It will not only focus on hydrogen supply and infrastructure, but also on the specific requirements for ground operations at airports. The ultimate goal is to foster and support the growth of the hydrogen aviation ecosystem in Spain.

“At Airbus, the decarbonisation of aviation is one of our most important goals and the deployment of hydrogen powered commercial aircraft with its ecosystem is one of those key levers. Given Spain's great potential in renewables and low carbon hydrogen production, it is essential that the aviation industry as a whole collaborates to secure a future end-to-end hydrogen supply chain up to the airports,” said Karine Guenan, Airbus’ vice-president ZEROe Ecosystem.

"The decarbonisation of the air transport sector is a priority for Aena. This collaboration will allow us to gain a broader understanding of how the process of supplying hydrogen to Spanish airports could materialise in the future, in order to establish a roadmap to address the main challenges presented by the introduction of this new energy vector in an airport environment," added Ana Salazar, director of sustainability at Aena.

María José Sanz, Director of Quality and Environment at Air Nostrum, explained: "Our commitment is to be at the side of the developers of new technologies aimed at decarbonising air transport. As a regional airline, we can be relevant in the project because we have the necessary conditions to become the first implementers of hydrogen technology, thanks to the size of our aircraft and the average distance we fly".

Teresa Parejo, Iberia's Director of Sustainability, added: "Collaboration between the different actors is necessary to advance in the decarbonisation of the sector. Hydrogen will foreseeably be part of the future of aviation, which will come later and will complement the development of sustainable fuels; to reach that future we must start taking the first steps now".

Andrés Suárez Global Strategy & Innovation Lead of Exolum stated: "At Exolum we are committed to the development and operation of infrastructures that contribute to boosting the energy transition and the decarbonisation of air mobility in all its areas and especially with the deployment of hydrogen as a future energy solution for the sector".

Luis de Oyarzabal, Repsol´s senior manager of New Business said: “Renewable hydrogen is key in our decarbonisation strategy. Not only will we use it in our industrial applications, but we also envision its potential in the field of mobility. To promote this market, we consider it is essential to collaborate with the best partners, joined together in this hub, to get the most potential out of the opportunity we have”.

Airbus launched the “Hydrogen Hub at Airports'' programme to promote the further expansion of hydrogen infrastructure in aviation. To date, agreements have been signed with partners and airports in 13 countries including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Hydrogen is a high-potential technology with a specific energy-per-unit mass that is three times higher than traditional jet fuel. If generated from renewable energy through electrolysis, hydrogen emits no CO2 emissions, thereby enabling renewable energy to potentially power large aircraft over long distances but without the undesirable by-product of CO2 emissions.

Because hydrogen has a lower volumetric energy density, the visual appearance of future aircraft will likely change. This is to better accommodate hydrogen storage solutions that will be bulkier than existing jet fuel storage tanks.

Hydrogen has been safely used in the aerospace and automobile industries for decades. The aviation industry’s challenge now is to take this decarbonised energy carrier and adapt it to commercial aviation’s needs.

Aircraft manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing two primary uses for hydrogen:

Hydrogen propulsion: Hydrogen can be combusted through modified gas-turbine engines or converted into electrical power that complements the gas turbine via fuel cells. The combination of both creates a highly efficient hybrid-electric propulsion chain powered entirely by hydrogen.

Synthetic fuels: Hydrogen can be used to create e-fuels, which are generated exclusively through renewable energy.

In today’s aircraft, wings are where the fuel is stored, and they are in no way large enough to store the hydrogen that would be needed for a long flight. Hydrogen aircraft of the future could have extra-large fuselages, but more likely they will be what’s called blended wing, in which the aircraft are shaped like large triangles. This would allow them to store more fuel, but also reduce fuel consumption to make the aircraft aerodynamics even better.

Aircraft using hydrogen would emit only water, and initial tests suggest they can be just as fast as traditional planes, carrying more than a hundred passengers per flight over thousands of kilometres.

Most of the world’s hydrogen today is produced by reforming methane from natural gas – a fossil fuel - which produces carbon dioxide. Efforts continue to develop green hydrogen by using an electric current from a renewable source to convert water into oxygen and hydrogen and reduce emissions in its production. If that is possible, along with no emissions from the planes themselves, aviation could become a green form of travel.

If Europe were to fully achieve the environmental benefits of hydrogen-power – for example, for air travel, the production of clean – or green – hydrogen needs to be dramatically scaled up. Clean hydrogen is produced from water using an electric current from a renewable source, rather than from fossil fuels. Today only a tiny fraction of hydrogen used in Europe is categorically “clean.”
  • The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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