British Airways (BA) sees hydrogen-powered 19-seater aircraft becoming cost competitive with its current fossil fuel model from 2027, and hydrogen-powered 72-seater and 180-seater aircraft becoming cost competitive with its current operations from 2030 onwards.
That’s what Carrie Harris, Head of Sustainability at British Airways, told the Westminster Energy Environment & Transport Forum’s Growing the hydrogen market in the UK virtual event today (May 26).
The first UK airline to offset carbon emissions for all its UK domestic flights, BA has also committed to reaching the UK Government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – and Harris said BA sees an opportunity for hydrogen in that.
“So obviously, we’d be looking to apply carbon capture and storage, nature-based carbon removals to mitigate, but ideally what we want to do is decarbonise at source. And so that’s where hydrogen has a significant role to play,” Harris said.
“Two critical channels are direct hydrogen propulsion and synthetic sustainable aviation fuels. But what I’m going to focus on is where we’ve got a little bit more data and that’s on the direct hydrogen propulsion.”
BA backed a hydrogen-fuelled aviation future in March when it invested in ZeroAvia – the hydrogen plane startup that successfully flew a six-seater hydrogen aircraft 250 miles in September 2020. It was the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered passenger flight.
“ZeroAvia are looking to scale that up by the end of this year to a 19-seat aircraft,” Harris said.
“The technology that they’re using for this is using gaseous hydrogen and using that to power an electric fuel cell. So it’s called a hydrogen electric propulsion system.
“At the moment, they’re using green electricity from the grid to electrolyse that in the small unit at Cranfield Airport.
“Their projection and their timeline for bringing forward the commercial-scale aircraft – which is for us, British Airways, what we’re most interested in – is from 2030 to 2035 we could see 180-seater single-aisle replacement aircraft available in the network.”
Harris said BA’s partnership with ZeroAvia started through International Airline Group’s (IAG) Hangar 51 accelerator programme in December 2020.
“Earlier this year, we moved forward to an investment as part of a consortium to help accelerate and drive this. We see it is very important strategically that we get involved in this because we want to encourage further investment in this area and drive progress as fast as possible,” Harris said.
“With carbon pricing coming forward, we’re keen to do what we can as soon as possible to try and decarbonise.
“The project looked at the various cost models and opportunities and we identified that by 2050, we could see that the whole of IAG operations within Europe could actually be operating on zero-emission aircraft.
“Now, obviously, there is many different elements that would need to be overcome from that, not least the hydrogen supply, different infrastructure, the aircraft production would need to be available, but technical feasibility and the range from the work that we’ve done with them looks like this is a realistic goal that we could be aiming for.”
Harris said further work was completed which look at the comparison of hydrogen with BA’s current fossil fuel model.
“That showed for short haul, kind of 19-seater, they could become cost competitive with current operations from 2027. So, for example, on very short haul routes, say island hopper, and very short haul domestic routes,” Harris said.
“And then for the 72-seater and the 180-seater, they’d become cost competitive from 2030 onwards.
“So we’re at a point now where actually because the energy density is higher with hydrogen and because the maintenance requirements from an electric motor are less from a jet engine, it offers a really attractive economic model as well as an environmental model. And we think it would be commercially very attractive for consumers as well. So multiple benefits and multiple reasons to pursue it.”
Projecting for a one way 1,000 nautical mile trip, Harris said this would require about 1.5 tonnes of hydrogen.
“When we scaled that looking at British Airways projected operations in 2050, we could be requiring about 12,000GW of renewable electricity to produce 210,000 tonnes of green hydrogen,” she said.
“So what that implies is the need for that kind of scale of hydrogen supply to be embedded in the UK’s hydrogen strategy, and clearly planning for that would need to start now.”