One of the hydrogen models that Airbus has presented this week.
The pandemic has changed the pace - and in what way - for Airbus, and Airbus wants to change the pace of the pandemic.
With deliveries paralyzed by the lack of appetite on the part of airlines that only seek to survive, hit by an epochal crisis and with a drastic workforce adjustment underway, the European aeronautical manufacturer has come to the fore this week with a promise of great draft and enormous uncertainty about its fulfillment: its first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft will be flying in 2035. This means that in just 15 years the firm based in Leiden (Netherlands) should be able to develop, with the highest safety standards that requires a sector as sensitive as the air, a technology still incipient.
The calendar is, to say the least, challenging.
The Airbus chief technology officer, Grazia Vittadini (Lodi, 1969) attends this newspaper by videoconference from Toulouse, its true technical headquarters, after “a historic day”: they have just presented in society the three prototypes of which the first should come out. commercial airliner that won't take to the skies without expelling a single gram of greenhouse gases.
“Hydrogen is the most promising vector for aviation.
It provides the same energy levels as kerosene, and therefore offers the same autonomy and performance ”, Vittadini points out while remembering that this fuel weighs will be one third of a traditional fuel.
"And in aviation, weight is a fundamental factor."
Aware of the social response - not so long ago, just a few months before the coronavirus entered the scene, the
(shame to fly in Swedish) was one of the biggest threats facing the airline industry -, the European manufacturer has opted for a 180-degree turn from the speech of the great airline employers (IATA), which last year still called to stand up to this movement to prevent its growth.
"Rebalancing the forces between profitability, social responsibility and sustainability is an obligation for our industry and future generations," says Vittadini.
"We are immersed in a real revolution that we are going to lead, making sure that Europe maintains its technological sovereignty."
With this coup, Airbus manages to take the lead in a sector still focused on the development of less polluting but still kerosene aircraft: neither Boeing nor the rest of its competitors have set such a clear date for the transition to truly aviation. clean.
However, the move carries an obvious risk: 2035 is just around the corner and a formal commitment like this holds you accountable when the date arrives.
“It is an ambitious goal, but it is our commitment.
Although we still do not have the definitive solution, our commitment remains: we are making very promising progress ”, confirms the head of technology of the European giant, which promises“ more details ”in 2021.“ Airbus will be the first world manufacturer to put on the market a hydrogen passenger plane ”.
- Can you, then, ensure that in 15 years we will fly in hydrogen planes?
We are confident that it is technically feasible.
-When will Airbus deliver its last kerosene plane?
-I wish I had a crystal ball to accurately answer this question.
Among car manufacturers it is common to unveil prototypes that are not called to reach the market, something not common in aviation.
“But it's something we wanted to do: make it clear that this is the direction in which we are working.
They will not necessarily be produced as they are, but with them we want to inspire future generations of engineers to join us and contribute together to the development of this revolutionary technology. "
In parallel to the three models - "visual prototypes", he clarifies - Airbus will work on a "demonstration unit" which will be subjected to ground tests and which, "after validating the most promising architecture, will be put into flight".
The date of this milestone, which will truly mark a before and after in the development of this technology, is still up in the air.
"Ensuring your safety in aviation is our highest priority."
In its combustion, hydrogen is absolutely clean: it is reduced to steam.
But to be truly green, 100% of the energy needed for its production - which is a lot - must also come from renewable sources: sun, wind or water.
That is the "aspiration" of Airbus.
"It is the only technological vector that allows us to do this," emphasizes the executive, confident that this chemical element contributes "by more than 50%" to the aviation decarbonisation process.
There are, however, a good number of unknowns to solve before it finally crystallizes: “how to store it, how to bring it to the temperature where it remains in a liquid state… Basic questions that still have to be adapted to the case of airplanes, but that have already been surpassed in the automotive or energy industries ”.
Also that the new hydrogen models do not remain only in the short and medium radius, the most feasible distances at first.
Only one of the three ZEROe prototypes has a range of more than 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 kilometers, little more than a Madrid-Moscow).
"The [hydrogen-powered] jet engine prototype is targeting an aircraft capable of covering intracontinental connections and our work is focused on technologies that are scalable."
Covering long distances is one of the weakest points of hydrogen as an air fuel: “It is more suitable for regional or medium-distance flights.
The long haul will require new aircraft designs adapted to hydrogen ”, acknowledges a recent report by the McKinsey consultancy, which also warns of an increase in the cost per passenger compared to kerosene.
With macroplanes in clear retreat - the iconic Jumbo (Boeing 747) and the world's largest passenger airliner (Airbus 380) are now off the production lines - due to their high fuel consumption and shortage of so many routes. density as these mastodons require, hydrogen can provide a second life for them.
“Today, with twin engines it is possible to achieve the same autonomy with less consumption.
But, with hydrogen in the equation, we free ourselves from any predefined scheme on the architecture of the aircraft ”, points out the Italian engineer, who worked on the development of the A380.
Not a few have seen in the Airbus announcement an attempt to change the direction of the conversation and avoid the criticism that the company is seeing after putting thousands of layoffs on the table to weather the storm of Covid-19.
Vittadini, a member of the Airbus steering committee, settles this point in a few words: “Adjustments are taking place, as in our industry and in other sectors.
We are in talks with the social agents to define a plan to limit the impact of the crisis.
We have adapted the pace of production to safeguard the continuity of the company and we have a plan to deal with a second wave [of the virus].
It all depends, of course, on how the health situation evolves month after month ”.
However, he acknowledges that the Airbus noble floor was expecting “a better summer”: “We are going to have to get used to living with the virus.
The crisis is not over yet, but we remain absolutely optimistic that in the coming years air traffic will pick up again, first in the narrow-body segment, and later in the wide-body segment.
When that happens, Airbus will be there ”.
Whether with kerosene or hydrogen remains to be seen.