19 Oct 2021

Air New Zealand and Airbus partner up to research hydrogen-powered aircraft

From Nine To Noon, 9:35 am on 19 October 2021

Air New Zealand and aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus have launched a joint initiative to investigate the future of hydrogen-powered aircraft.

Under a memorandum of understanding, Air New Zealand will investigate how hydrogen aircraft could affect its network, operations and infrastructure, and Airbus will provide hydrogen aircraft performance requirements and ground operations characteristics.

Hydrogen plane concept image

Photo: Supplied / Airbus / Air New Zealand

So how realistic is the prospect of hydrogen-powered flight for commercial aircraft... and what will it take to make it viable?

Hydrogen and other sustainable fuels will form part of Air New Zealand’s emissions target of net zero by 2050, David Morgan, chief operational integrity and safety officer at Air New Zealand says.

“The great thing about hydrogen of course it is net zero emissions in fact, all that is produced by burning that fuel is water vapour.”

The plan is to bring hydrogen into the operation by 2035 if not before, he says.

“Hydrogen is very viable as a fuel source for aircraft such as the ATR fleet that we have at the moment or the Q300 [turbo prop] fleet which will be replaced in about 10 years’ time.”

He says the company has a decarbonisation “roadmap,” with half delivered through sustainable aviation fuels, 20 percent through zero emissions aircraft and the rest from fleet renewal.

“In the long run at least 20 percent of our target will be delivered by zero emissions aircraft and hydrogen is going to be at play a big part of that.”

Hydrogen technology has advanced, he says. And it could be used in two ways to fuel a plane.

“Either as a fuel cell, which will power electric motors on the aircraft, as opposed to a direct combustion using the actual gas to power a modified gas turbine or otherwise known as a jet engine.”

Air New Zealand, with Airbus, is pursuing fuel cell technology, he says.

“The hydrogen will be stored in pressurised tanks in the aircraft, very similar to fuel tanks that exist on the aircraft today.

“And as a consequence, that will then create electricity which will drive electric motors on the aircraft. And there's a couple of advantages in that as well, apart from the emissions, electric motors generally are lighter than the engines that we have on the aircraft today, and so therefore will need less energy to operate the aeroplane, but also will be able to get more payload onto the aircraft as well.”

The hydrogen must be green and New Zealand is in a good place to produce it, he says.

“How you produce hydrogen in actual fact in large quantities, is you need water and you need electricity, there’s a good supply of water in this country and obviously with New Zealand's significant amount of renewable electricity production, green hydrogen is very viable in this country.”

The challenge is then how to move it around the country, he says.

 “I can see a very viable green net zero emissions operation in the South Island using hydrogen sourced from the South Island.

“The other technology that's starting to converge as well is the ability to generate hydrogen very locally. It uses electrolysis and there is now technology that's coming through that is very small, containerised electrolysis capability.”

This could mean an airport making its own hydrogen, he says.

“I can envisage a situation where an airport will have the ability to produce electrolysis either at the airport or locally, which would not only support the aircraft operation, but obviously support other uses of hydrogen such as the trucking fleet as well.”

He believes Marsden Point Refinery has a future role in producing sustainable aviation fuels.

“Both in terms of an import terminal, because there's a huge amount of infrastructure out there, and of course a lot of it was repurposed to enable fuels to be loaded into the system straight from the dock as a result of the pipeline failure in 2017, but also as an infrastructure provider for domestic sustainable aviation fuel production.”