In mid-June at the British airport Cranfield: A group of spectators in yellow safety vests is standing on the lawn, the fire brigade has also positioned itself with two emergency vehicles at the runway. Slowly it rolls off, the blue propeller plane with six seats, on to its first test flight, to the future of aviation.
It is an important achievement for the British start-up ZeroAvia. Its engineers have given the machine a new drive train: Instead of kerosene, it fills up with electricity. It still comes from rechargeable batteries, but fuel cells are expected to generate it from hydrogen during the next big test flight in autumn.
The industry urgently needs innovations like these. Ever since the Fridays for Future movement made itself heard, the emission of climate-damaging carbon dioxide in air traffic has become a political issue. By 2050, according to the voluntary commitment of the industry association Air Transport Action Group, emissions are to be reduced by 50 percent compared to 2005. But so far nobody knew how to do this.
“A year ago everyone in the industry was still talking about batteries,” says Julian Renz, project manager at ZeroAvia. “Now hydrogen is the focus of the discussions.” All over the world, states and corporations are investing in the mass production of this new energy source. Germany alone wants to put nine billion euros into the hydrogen economy, and
The aim of these initiatives is to make gas the fuel of the 21st century. The first trains and ships are already using it, steelworks and fertilizer factories are testing hydrogen as a new energy carrier. “Hydrogen could be one way of continuing aviation emission-free,” says Jochen Kaiser, head of visionary aircraft concepts at the Munich aviation think tank Bauhaus Luftfahrt.
The founders of ZeroAvia now want to set the pace: “We want to accelerate the change to sustainable aviation,” says Renz. In three years’ time, he wants to bring the first regional aircraft with hydrogen propulsion onto the market: it should accommodate ten to twenty passengers – and be able to fly around 800 kilometers. Routes like Munich – Berlin could be created with it.
The British are not alone: Air taxi start-ups such as Alaka’i and the Korean drone developer Doosan Mobility Innovation are also working on planes with fuel cells. Even the aircraft manufacturer Airbus is weighing the possibilities.
In aviation, new technologies take a particularly long time to take off. And it will also be expensive. This is especially true for completely new drives. The industry is now hoping for support from the state hydrogen subsidies that were recently announced. According to media reports, the French government is planning to invest 1.5 billion euros in the development of a hydrogen-powered aircraft over the next three years. The aim is to develop a CO2-neutral aircraft by 2035.
At Airbus, they think this is realistic: a program to build such an aircraft could start between 2026 and 2028. Until then, there will be five years to bring the necessary technologies to maturity. “We have been working on it for some time,” the company says, “we are not starting from scratch.” Various technologies are still being considered, hydrogen is one of them. The greatest challenge lies in getting the new technologies certified for use in aviation. Industry experts speculate that the successor to the A 320 could be a hydrogen aircraft.