Could our flights of the future run on batteries and hydrogen?

Elle Kiai

16.5.2022

Picture this. Your bags are packed, your passports are checked, you’ve bought plenty of snacks for the plane and you’re waiting to board your flight on a summer getaway. This scene is not out of the ordinary, as hundreds of thousands of us take to the skies each year on business, holidays with friends, or to see family on distant coasts.

But we know we need to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century to keep the global temperature below 1.5°C which is making many of us think more carefully about the impact our travel decisions are having.

We also know that emissions from planes are rising rapidly. For example, a return flight from London to San Francisco emits around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per person – more than twice the emissions produced by a family car in a year.

How great would it be then, if everyone had the opportunity to travel guilt-free? This may be within our reach sooner than we think, as the government has pulled together a new group of aviation experts across industry and government who will work together to make zero emission flight a reality.

Rolls Royce and Airbus are among the companies racing to develop zero emission aircraft

The new Zero Emission Flight (ZEF) Delivery Group, will propel Britain’s role in the global effort to end flight emissions by supporting the development of zero emission aircraft and airport infrastructure. It will also look at how the law needs to adapt for sustainable flights to take to the skies.

The new group will sit under the Jet Zero Council – an advisory forum with experts from across the industry – and will focus specifically on the technology, infrastructure and regulation needed to bring zero emission flight to life.

As a group, the Jet Zero Council members have already made significant achievements on ZEF, including Rolls-Royce's Spirit of Innovation which is the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft. Not only this, ZeroAvia secured further private investment and moved closer to achieving commercialisation for its hydrogen propulsion technology by 2024.

ZeroAvia uses hydrogen propulsion technology

EasyJet has entered into a partnership with Cranfield Aerospace Solutions to support the development of its hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system and Airbus launched its ZERO demonstrator to support its aims to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035. And the FlyZero project also concluded in March this year, setting out the potential for liquid hydrogen to be used for future zero emission commercial aircraft.

But developing the technology needed for zero-emission flight comes at a price, and the Government is also investing £685m over the next three years in Aerospace R&D through the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) Programme.

In addition, the Government is providing £125m (matched by £175m from industry) of support for Innovate UK’s Future Flight Challenge. The Challenge will shortly announce projects successful in its third funding competition including those advancing electric flight technologies that will support the operation of sub-regional aircraft and the UK in reaching its net zero target.

So perhaps one day - in the not too distant future - the only thing we will have to feel guilty about when jetting off on our holidays is the oversized Toblerone bar we bought in the terminal.

Airbus has a variety of zero-emission concepts

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