Aircraft engine burns hydrogen during ground test

British aircraft engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce and low-cost airline easyJet announced this week that they have successfully run a modern aircraft engine using 100% hydrogen fuel. The test was conducted at a military facility in the United Kingdom with the engine stationary on the ground.

Since the aviation industry currently produces around 2% of global carbon emissions, there are serious reasons to develop a greener way to fuel airplanes. Rolls-Royce (the aerospace and defense contractor, not the similarly-named auto brand owned by BMW) hopes hydrogen can hold the answers it needs to continue selling its turbofans and other engines in the future.

Most aircraft engines run on kerosene-based jet fuel. Unfortunately for the climate, it’s a fossil fuel that releases CO2 when burned. Some airlines mix sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) that are chemically identical to kerosene, although they are produced from renewable starting materials such as used cooking oil, leftovers, and corncob (remains of corncobs after harvest). Still, since SAFs are chemically the same as kerosene, they release the same amount of CO2 when burned – the benefit is that the processes required to produce them can be more environmentally sustainable.

Hydrogen offers a potentially better option as it contains no carbon. When burned, the main byproduct is water vapor (though there are some pollutants such as nitrous oxide). As long as hydrogen is produced using wind, wave or other renewable forms of electricity, it can legally be a carbon neutral fuel. Rolls-Royce used “green hydrogen” from the European Marine Energy Center in the Orkney Islands for this test. It was produced using tidal energy rather than being diluted with methane gas.

Hydrogen could potentially power airplanes in two different ways: as a fuel source for an electricity-generating fuel cell that powers an electric motor, or by burning it directly. Rolls-Royce and easyJet took the second approach, using a Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A regional aircraft engine modified to burn hydrogen instead of jet fuel. Given the success of this test, they plan to work up to a full-scale ground test using a Rolls-Royce Pearl 15 jet engine and eventually a flight test using civilian air engines.

Of course, hydrogen comes with its own problems. It has significantly less energy density than kerosene, so airplanes have to carry a larger amount of fuel to cover the same distance. It is also a gas at temperatures above -423°F (-253°C), making it more difficult to store. It was compressed to 200 bar (about 100 times the typical tire pressure of a car) for Rolls-Royce’s test engine. This makes it significantly more suitable for short haul flights than transoceanic and other long haul routes.

Still, there are promising signs that hydrogen may have a future in the aviation world, especially as the industry strives to be carbon neutral by 2050. easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren called it a “big step forward” in a press release. . Similarly, Grazia Vittadini, Rolls-Royce Chief Technology Officer, said: “The success of this hydrogen test is an exciting milestone… We are pushing the boundaries to explore the zero carbon possibilities of hydrogen that can help reshape the future of flight.” ”

Rolls-Royce isn’t the only aerospace company exploring hydrogen as an option. Airbus plans to blow up a hydrogen-powered A380 by 2026. The European Union hopes that by 2035 short-haul flights will be possible and by 2050 up to 40 percent of flights in Europe will be powered by hydrogen. .

But make no mistake: no matter how successful the tests of Rolls-Royce and easyJet are, we are still a long way from having a large number of hydrogen-powered jets take to the skies.

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