In a significant breakthrough for sustainable aviation, a hydrogen-powered plane capable of flying the distance from London to Rome has successfully completed its maiden piloted journey. Developed by the German company H2FLY, this aircraft harnesses the power of liquid hydrogen to operate its electric motors, driving its propeller.
What sets this hydrogen-powered aircraft apart is its utilization of liquid hydrogen, which offers several advantages over gaseous hydrogen, particularly in terms of weight and storage requirements. Liquid hydrogen is substantially lighter than batteries and necessitates smaller tanks, potentially providing aircraft with extended ranges and more space for passengers and cargo.
While some aircraft manufacturers and engine developers, including Rolls-Royce and Airbus, have explored gaseous hydrogen as a power source, they have faced challenges due to the large size of the engines required. In contrast, H2FLY’s use of liquid hydrogen has effectively doubled the aircraft’s range to approximately 1,500 kilometers, equivalent to the distance between London and Rome.
However, working with liquid hydrogen presents its own set of challenges. Hydrogen, a gas at typical temperatures, must be cooled to an astonishingly frigid minus 253 degrees Celsius to become a liquid, necessitating specialized insulated “cryogenic” containers for storage. Additionally, hydrogen is highly combustible and prone to leakage, necessitating rigorous safety measures.
Josef Kallo, co-founder of H2FLY, expressed, “This achievement marks a watershed moment in the use of hydrogen to power aircraft. Together with our partners, we have demonstrated the viability of liquid hydrogen to support medium and long-range emissions-free flight.” The project is now focused on scaling up the technology for regional aircraft and other applications, marking a pivotal step in decarbonizing commercial aviation.
The test flights, lasting up to three hours, were conducted at a testing facility in Slovenia. The aircraft’s system funneled hydrogen into fuel cells, where it was converted into electricity and water, with the latter being safely released into the atmosphere. As a result, these flights produced zero CO2 emissions, highlighting the environmental benefits of hydrogen-powered aviation.
Pierre Crespi, of Air Liquide Advanced Technologies, which designed the cryogenic tanks holding the liquid hydrogen, emphasized, “This demonstrates the full potential of liquid hydrogen for aviation. Liquid hydrogen can be stored onboard and transported.”
Major aviation players like Airbus are also actively developing hydrogen-powered aircraft with the goal of introducing them for commercial service starting in 2035. Additionally, Rolls-Royce has conducted successful ground tests in 2022, demonstrating the feasibility of hydrogen as a jet engine fuel.
These advancements have led to increased interest in companies pioneering these technologies, with H2FLY, for instance, being acquired in 2021 by Joby Aviation, a California-based company specializing in electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft for commercial passenger service. The future of hydrogen-electric aircraft appears promising, with expectations that these aircraft will soon be able to transport up to 40 passengers over distances of up to 2,000 kilometers within just a few years.