Airbus and CFM International announce that they have signed a partnership on Tuesday, February 22, to conduct research on direct hydrogen combustion, with the ambition of launching a hydrogen-powered short and medium-haul aircraft in less than 15 years. The technological challenges to overcome are colossal.
The aircraft manufacturer Airbus and CFM International – a 50/50 joint venture GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines – announced on Tuesday, February 22, to join forces to test, on land and in the air, a direct combustion engine powered by hydrogen. This partnership is anchored in Airbus’ zero emission (ZEROe) program: the European aircraft manufacturer has indeed committed, in September 2020, to commissioning a hydrogen-powered short and medium-haul aircraft by 2035.
For this new stage of R&D, Airbus will provide an A380 test aircraft, equipped with liquid hydrogen tanks. “Airbus will also define the specifications of the hydrogen propulsion system and supervise the flight tests”, is specified in the press release. CFM International engineers are, for their part, in charge of modifying “the combustion chamber, the fuel circuit and the control system of a GE Passport turbojet engine so that it operates at ‘hydrogen’ , according to the release. CFM will also have to carry out an in-depth ground test program before the A380 flight tests.
Lots of obstacles to overcome
Beyond just the engine, huge technological challenges still await the engineers of Airbus and CFM International. A lot of work on the cryogenic tanks is particularly necessary: their mass must be drastically reduced, while ensuring the stability of the fuel. Because liquid hydrogen boils as soon as the temperature exceeds – 253°C. The other project concerns the architecture of the aircraft: as it is impossible to store hydrogen in the wings, which are too thin, the hydrogen aircraft must be completely redesigned.
But before fueling planes with hydrogen, it is still necessary to ensure the climate benefit associated with this technology. A point that still remains uncertain: “Atmospheric conditions allowing the formation of contrails will be more frequent with a hydrogen plane that emits more water vapor”, pointed out Olivier Boucher, climatologist at the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute (IPSL). On this point, the press release specifies that “the engine will be installed in the rear fuselage of the flight test bed in order to be able to monitor engine emissions, including contrails , separately from those of the engines propelling the aircraft”.