The plane is still only a concept, but if it becomes a reality, 279 passengers will be able to fly from London to San Francisco without refuelling, and with zero emissions.
FlyZero is a massive research project backed by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), the UK’s leading aerospace research and development organisation, and the UK government. The aim of the project is to develop a zero-emission commercial aircraft by the end of the decade, with all the necessary infrastructure,” says the press release. The intensive, year-long strategic research programme will bring together a wide range of experts to develop the concept for this aircraft. According to the plans just unveiled, the final aircraft will fly the distance between London and Auckland, New Zealand, with 279 passengers on board, in a single refuelling. The same aircraft will fly from London to San Francisco without a single refuelling.
The ATI-led project therefore envisages a future in which commercial aviation is not only environmentally friendly, but also more efficient than the current fossil-fuel based aircraft. And this could be a reality by the mid-2030s – at least according to plans.
The idea is based on green hydrogen, which would be used not only for shorter domestic flights, but also (somewhat contrary to the ‘mainstream’ approach) for global, international flights. Aviation is responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and there are several ideas to green the sector. One is hydrogen, specifically green hydrogen (we’ll come back to this in a moment), but biofuels have also been mooted, particularly for international flights, and electric propulsion, although the battery capacity to do this outside the world of air taxis is not yet in sight.
As for green hydrogen – or more precisely, for the time being, only hydrogen itself – its use is a major technological challenge for several reasons: the hydrogen atom is the smallest of the elements in the peridoo system, so it passes through everything easily, which means that the walls of the tanks must be designed with this in mind. In addition, it makes many metals brittle and fragile and, when mixed with oxygen, forms a thurane gas, which is less desirable for an aircraft.
And the green hydrogen designation refers to the production process. In fact, 99 percent of production is currently so-called grey hydrogen, i.e. produced using natural gas and coal and emitting carbon dioxide. There are of course financial reasons for this, but the situation could change in favour of green hydrogen produced in an environmentally friendly way, with cheaper renewable energy and more efficient electrolysis, which could reduce the cost of producing green hydrogen by up to 30 percent. The difference between the amount of hydrogen produced now and in 2050 could be up to six times greater, according to some experts.
All of this suggests that a commercial flight powered by green hydrogen is far from an onion-skirted folly. And FlyZero is in the process of developing the technologies and infrastructure needed to power the hydrogen-powered aircraft. The whole project will be published in 2022, and this will include three aircraft concepts in addition to a technology roadmap and business and sustainability reports.
The idea is to store liquid hydrogen fuel in cryogenic fuel tanks at about minus 250 degrees Celsius in the rear fuselage, in two smaller “slap” tanks next to the front fuselage. These tanks also serve to balance the aircraft when the fuel runs out. And the 54-metre wingspan aircraft’s two turbofan engines will be powered by burning hydrogen. The project is expected to cost £3.9 billion by 2026.