The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

On The Radar

Hydrogen May Well Be the Answer for Green Aviation, But Many Questions Need Addressing

Hydrogen propulsion is emerging as an increasingly favored path to net zero carbon air transport, with several companies working on technology for both new and converted aircraft. But certifying hydrogen-powered aircraft is just one part of the equation, with the industry facing myriad complex considerations about how the operations will be supported, and how environmentally sustainable and commercially viable they might prove to be in practice.

These are the questions that Alton Aviation Consultancy has addressed in a new white paper entitled Hydrogen Aircraft and Implications for Aviation Infrastructure, authored by Mabel Kwan, Joshua Ng, and Zhen Ying Cheah. On balance, the company views the fuel as a strong prospect for cutting carbon levels, with the proviso that green hydrogen production, which involves splitting water via electrolysis, is by some distance the cleanest option.

Alton’s team is urging the industry to take a hard look at the inevitable trade-offs in aircraft performance that a transition away from fossil fuels will entail. They also spell out in some detail the significant need for investment in the complex infrastructure required to underpin the widespread availability of hydrogen, which the white paper stresses is by no means a flawless solution to aviation’s environmental challenges.

According to Ng, having had a somewhat hands-off involvement in the push to decarbonize aviation in the early years of the 21st century, governments are now being more assertive, and not a moment too soon. “Governments are now trying to organize industry [to make the right moves] with both penalties and incentives,” he told FutureFlight. “The role of government has to be coordinated because the industry can’t just move carbon emissions from one pocket to another. We hope governments will have a more global perspective and apply solutions globally.”

Just as airlines have opted not to compete on safety standards, Alton believes, companies will need to treat decarbonization as a common goal across the industry. “There needs to be full transparency with [progress] measured and recorded,” commented Kwan. “The industry needs to pursue long-term goals based on consensus, because if [governments] set too much of a quantitative goal the industry might not be ready. There should be milestone targets, but not a homogenous, arbitrary target. Targets, even with fairly small gains, can be important demand signals to suppliers that can translate into investment.”

However, in Alton’s view, new-generation aircraft are not yet well enough defined to give airport and airline planners the information they need to make detailed preparations for service entry. But the consultancy welcomes initiatives increasingly backed by policymakers to get the supply side of the equation ready through research and development work on infrastructure and exercises to boost green hydrogen production with backing from other transportation and industrial sectors.

Alton also advocates increased activity to determine how airspace use and air traffic management will need to evolve to take account of hydrogen-powered aircraft. Factors such as anticipated lower cruise altitudes and slow refueling process need to be on the table, says the company, which is active in advising both governments and private sector agents with work such as use-case analysis and strategic reviews.

“We tell customers that there has to be more than just a technological solution,” said Kwan. “It has to permeate corporate cultures and also their talent pools. It has to be a win-win for everyone, and we are increasingly seeing investors looking at sustainability as part of a long-term strategy.”