Fuel for thought
Airports need to get hydrogen ready now to help the industry meet its net zero targets, writes Jacobs’ Andrew Gibson and Elizabeth Leavitt.
Airports worldwide continue to make significant progress in reducing their carbon emissions, but without decarbonising aircraft, overall reductions from the aviation sector will be limited.
It is therefore no surprise to report that the aerospace industry is working hard to find solutions to the problem, primarily through the design and the development of new aircraft and methods of propulsion.
While rapid progress continues in the development of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and battery-electric propulsion, hydrogen is also being explored as a potential zero carbon-emission fuel of the future.
Indeed, research into the use of hydrogen continues to gain momentum, with projects such as the Aerospace Technology Institute’s FlyZero programme in the UK and the Airbus ZEROe initiative demonstrating realistic feasibility.
As such, commercial aircraft powered by liquid hydrogen are expected by the mid-2030s, with smaller gaseous hydrogen-electric fuel cell aircraft potentially in operation within the next few years.
In the future, multiple complementary technologies and fuels will likely be operated in parallel at most airports. However, without knowing if or when new aircraft will be introduced, airport owners face the challenge of preparing for multiple and uncertain future scenarios.
Airports may feel there is little they can do to plan for future fuels like hydrogen, with no choice but to act reactively as aircraft technology develops.
However, infrastructure and investment planning are needed today to enable the effective operation of hydrogen in the future.
Early planning and implementation of compatible infrastructure offers airports sustainability and resilience, positioning them to capture new carriers and route connections as airlines move towards the use of new technology.
An effective roadmap, like that presented by FlyZero, can support an airport’s ambitions to plan for future hydrogen use. However, to ensure future viability, airport operators need to find certainty within uncertainty, identifying ways to encourage the implementation of decarbonisation technologies in advance of their use for aircraft propulsion.
Airports can begin preparing by considering early adoption for their own and other stakeholders’ use, such as by handling agents, transport providers, local industry and freight distributors.
By early adoption that stimulates an integrated hydrogen ecosystem, airports not only prepare for the eventual use of hydrogen as an aircraft fuel but also become catalysts to support wider decarbonisation initiatives.
In addition, the certainty of demand that this ecosystem provides allows longer-term investment in infrastructure, knowing that there will be a positive return on investment.
In the US, the government has highlighted hydrogen among the solutions needed to provide clean power and decarbonise energy intensive industries. The new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $9.5 billion in investment for hydrogen with an aim to “reduce costs, make new breakthroughs, and create jobs for Americans”.
Specific to aviation, several companies are looking to change the flight landscape in the US with the aim to make hydrogen-electric powered aircraft commercially available by as early as 2024.
Looking to the future, it is expected that low-carbon hydrogen production in North America will nearly triple by 2030, reaching 1.4 million tons per annum.
This strong developing hydrogen economy in North America, mirrored globally, provides an opportunity for the aviation industry to build partnerships within the wider ecosystem, including government, airlines, hydrogen providers, transportation, cargo, and local businesses.
This ecosystem will benefit both aviation and other industries looking to decarbonise and can support aviation in becoming a catalyst for decarbonisation.
For further insight, the Jacobs report Airports as Catalysts for Change discusses the need for airports to proactively prepare for the future and builds on the ATI FlyZero report Hydrogen Infrastructure and Operations, Airports, Airlines and Airspace.
About the authors
Andrew Gibson is Jacobs’ global solutions director for aviation and Elizabeth Leavitt is the company’s principal for climate response.