Creative visualization of a hydrogen-powered airplane

EU to fly hydrogen-powered planes by 2035; JetBlue 1st airline to use UV light to disinfect cabins

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated as of September 7, 2021)

Ambitious as it may sound, a hydrogen-powered short-range commercial passenger aircraft could be flying within Europe by 2035.

That’s according to a major study commissioned by the European Union’s public-private Clean Sky 2 and Fuel Cells & Hydrogen Joint Undertakings. This published report concluded that hydrogen propulsion has the potential to significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact.

However, to achieve this hydrogen revolution, significant aircraft research and development, further development of fuel cell technology, and liquid hydrogen tanks will be required. That includes investment in fleet and hydrogen infrastructure, alongside accompanying regulations and certification standards. Also, there are several policy actions and the framework needed for the transition, including a guiding roadmap, plus a significant increase in long-term research and innovation activities and funding. This project happened to coincide with the launch by the European Commission of an ambitious strategy to include hydrogen in the region’s overall energy mix as part of the union’s 2050 carbon neutrality goal.

The project will run in three phases. Initially from 2020 up to 2024, the objective is to install at least 6 gigawatt (GW) of renewable hydrogen electrolyzers in Europe and the production of up to 1 million tons of renewable hydrogen. During the second phase between 2025-2030, hydrogen needs to become an intrinsic part of an integrated energy system with a strategic objective to install at least 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolyzers by the end of the phase and production reaching 10 million tons.

In the third and final phase from 2030 to 2050, renewable hydrogen technologies, including hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels, are expected to reach maturity and deployed at large scale to reach hard-to-decarbonize sectors, such as aviation.

Investment-wise, electrolyzers could range between €24 and €42 billion, with a further €220-340 billion required to scale up and directly connect 80-120 GW of solar and wind energy production capacity. Besides, the huge investment is needed in CCS retrofitting; hydrogen transport, distribution and storage; and hydrogen refueling stations for surface transport. Now, because of the high costs involved, the commission is considering various demand-side support policies and incentives at EU level, including the possibility of minimum shares or quotas in specific end-use sectors.

So, how would these hydrogen planes look like? Well, it would be similar to traditional commercial aircraft but would require a slightly longer length. Smaller planes, on the other hand, would likely use propellers, with hydrogen-powered fuel cells providing electric propulsion. The report suggests hydrogen power could be feasible by 2035 to power a commercial passenger aircraft on a flight up to 3,000 km. By 2040, meantime, a medium-range plane of up to 7,000 km could be probable.

In comparison to conventional aircraft, a fuel cell-powered propulsion commuter or regional aircraft, the operational costs could increase by as little as $5 to $10 per passenger, per a study. For short-range aircraft, a hybrid propulsion approach—hydrogen combustion and fuel cell—the costs increase per passenger by 20-30%. As for medium-range aircraft, it requires significantly extended fuselages for liquid hydrogen storage and would consume around 25% more energy than conventional aircraft, which would lead to a cost increase of 30-40%.

Hydrogen is technically feasible but less suitable for evolutionary long-range aircraft designs from an economic perspective. The hydrogen tanks would increase airframe length and energy demand, resulting in 40-50% higher costs per passenger, and the study found synfuel is likely the more cost-effective decarbonization solution. New aircraft designs, such as the blended wing body, could change that, but may be at least 20 years away from entry into service.

Suppose hydrogen-powered aircraft are deployed in segments where they are the most cost-efficient means of decarbonization. In that case, they could account for 40% of all aircraft by 2050, with this share further increasing after 2050. With synfuel and sustainable biofuel powering the other 60%, aviation’s climate impact would then fall by the equivalent of about 2.7 gigatons of CO2e compared with 5.7 gigatons in a baseline scenario where only efficiency improvements are made, estimates the study.

JetBlue Installs UV Lights

One of the alternative disinfectants known today is the use of ultraviolet (UV) light. Hospitals have long been using it in their disinfecting rooms. So, JetBlue Airways acknowledges this alternative and has begun practicing a new system made by Honeywell, a Phoenix-based company, that utilizes UV light to disinfect airplane cabins.

It is part of the airline’s pilot program which marks the first time a US carrier has deployed the technology.

Clinical studies by Boston University and a consortium of Italian researchers have found that UV light applied at prescribed levels can significantly reduce certain viruses and bacteria. The Honeywell UV Cabin System can traverse an aircraft cabin in less than 10 minutes, and JetBlue will evaluate its place in its operation while continuing other cleaning methods.

“With the safety of our crewmembers and customers our first priority, JetBlue’s Safety from the Ground Up initiative is maintaining a layered approach to safety by ensuring healthy crewmembers, providing flexibility, adding space, reducing touchpoints, and keeping surfaces clean and sanitized,” said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue’s president and chief operating officer in a statement. “As we look to add additional layers of protection by utilizing cutting-edge technology, we have identified the Honeywell UV Cabin System as a potential game-changer when it comes to assisting in our efforts to sanitize surfaces onboard efficiently.”

Honeywell already delivered eight of the devices to JetBlue, and the airline has started putting the tools into service at two of its focus cities, namely John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The airline company chose the two locations to launch a 90-day pilot program to gauge the effectiveness of the Honeywell system. “JetBlue took an immediate interest in this new product when we demonstrated it for them just a few weeks ago, and now JetBlue is receiving our first systems,” said Mike Madsen, Honeywell Aerospace president and CEO. “We’ve ramped up production quickly on the UV Cabin System, and our company is working on a range of solutions to help make passengers more comfortable about flying.”

With about the same size to that of an aircraft beverage cart, the Honeywell UV Cabin System uses UV-C light arms that extend over the top of seats and sweep the cabin to treat aircraft surfaces. When appropriately applied, UV-C lights can deliver doses that clinical studies have found sufficient to reduce bacteria and viruses, including SARS-CoV—the germ that causes Covid-19. (GreenAirOnline, AINonline; photo by GreenAirOnline)

Watch this DW Planet A feature on the harsh realities facing hydrogen technology and sustainable aviation here:

Watch JetBlue’s thorough efforts in keeping flight cabins safe and virus-free in this video feature: