Airbus has unveiled its plans for bringing the world's first zero-emission commercial aircraft into service by 2035.
Boeing's European rival on Monday revealed three concepts that will explore different options for using hydrogen as a primary source of power to fly planes.
"This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole and we intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen," Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said in a statement.
Faury said that hydrogen, both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft, has the potential to "significantly reduce aviation's climate impact."
Airlines and planemakers are facing growing pressure to tackle carbon emissions, with some governments tying climate crisis goals to coronavirus bailout packages. The pandemic has plunged aviation into its worst ever slump and is expected to accelerate the shift towards renewable forms of energy, as governments use the opportunity to promote a green recovery.
The global aviation industry has committed to cutting emissions to half their 2005 levels by 2050. In order to do this, the sector will need to rapidly reduce its reliance on crude oil-based jet fuel and turn increasingly to sustainable aviation fuels. But these are as yet largely untapped and much more expensive than conventional fuels.
Supply is also a challenge. In 2019, airlines used about 340 billion liters of jet fuel, whereas only about 50 million liters of sustainable aviation fuels were produced, Robert Boyd, who heads alternative fuels at the International Air Transport Association, recently told CNN Business.
The move by Airbus could mark a significant step towards making sustainable aviation fuels commercially viable. The company estimates that hydrogen has the potential to reduce aviation's carbon emissions by up to 50%.
The three ZEROe concepts unveiled by the planemaker include a turbofan, a turboprop and blended-wing body design.
The turbofan design would carry 120 to 200 passengers with a range of over 2,000 nautical miles. It will be powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen, rather than jet fuel, through combustion.
The turboprop design would carry up to 100 passengers and would be capable of traveling more than 1,000 nautical miles, making it suitable for short-haul trips. A blended-wing body design would carry up to 200 passengers. The wings would merge with the main body of the aircraft, which has a range similar to that of the turbofan.
Airbus expects that it will take three to five years to select a concept for development, executive vice president of engineering Jean-Brice Dumont said Monday during a briefing streamed on the company's social media channels.
It expects to invest "billions" in the project, added Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of zero-emission aircraft. Llewellyn said that Airbus has already started working with airlines, energy companies and airports. "This is going to create a massive change in the energy and aviation ecosystem," he said.
The transition to hydrogen will require "decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem," Faury said. For example, airports will require significant hydrogen transport and refueling infrastructure.
Government support will also be needed, including increased funding for research and technology, as well as mechanisms that encourage the use of sustainable aviation fuels and prompt airlines to replace less environmentally friendly planes earlier.
The European Commission is considering requiring airlines to use a minimum amount of sustainable fuels as part of proposals to reduce the environmental damage caused by aviation. Without regulatory intervention, consumption of sustainable aviation fuels is projected to increase from 0.05% of the total jet fuel demand currently to just 2.8% by 2050, it said in a recent assessment.
text by Hanna Ziady, CNN Business