Making hydrogen-powered flights a reality by 2035
In this article, David Eccles, Director of Hydrogen South West, outlines his ambitious plans to implement hydrogen-powered flights and argues why airport infrastructure and cross-sector partnerships are imperative for its success.
Making hydrogen-powered flights a reality by 2035.
Hydrogen-powered flight offers a potential route for zero carbon emissions flight. Airport infrastructure will be critical to its success, but airports will need to form new partnerships with companies outside of the sector to deliver it.
A global centre of skills and innovation
Hydrogen South West is a unique consortium of companies from multiple sectors, including aviation and aerospace, that have come together to accelerate the creation of a regional hydrogen economy. This is centred on the South West of England, a region that is home to 14 of the 15 most significant aerospace companies in the world, supported by world-class universities and specialist science centres, a complex supply chain of over 800 companies, aerospace R&D centres, and an unparalleled high-skill talent pool.
This new Hydrogen South West consortium is genuinely cross-sector, combining aviation with aerospace giants such as Airbus, GKN Aerospace, and easyJet with regional hubs Bristol Port and Bristol Airport. Generation and transportation expertise is provided by EDF’s Hynamics and gas network Wales & West Utilities, along with infrastructure specialists Costain and WSP. Recently, the water company YTL Wessex Water joined the consortium as its 10th core member and Hydrogen South West has provided the opportunity for smaller start-ups to join.
The UK was the first major economy to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and has set out a pathway for the aviation sector to cut its emissions”
The South West region is already a hub of advanced technology. In addition to the multiple high-value engineering and tech companies, we have nationally important R&D facilities such as the Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS), the National Composite Centre, GKN’s Global Technology Centre, and Airbus’ forthcoming Zero Emission Development Centre. We host the UK’s largest nuclear project with Hinkley Point C which, combined with existing skilled labour in this area, provides us with the opportunity for large-scale hydrogen generation.
Although Hydrogen South West is drawing on other regional strengths, such as marine and nuclear, aerospace and aviation is expected to play a critical role in creating long-term demand for hydrogen. The UK was the first major economy to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and has set out a pathway for the aviation sector to cut its emissions, which will require the development of new technology and associated airport infrastructure. This includes an ambitious target of net zero domestic aviation and zero emissions airport operations by 2040.
Meeting the challenge of climate change presents risk but also potential opportunities. By drawing on our existing strengths to lead the world in decarbonising technology, our region can be the first to bring it to a global market, creating, sustaining and evolving tens of thousands of green jobs and providing sustainable economic growth. This will secure the 100,000 jobs the aerospace sector provides in the South West along with its £7 billion annual contribution to the UK economy, with aerospace often described as the ‘crown jewels’ of British exports. The risk is equally clear; too often the UK has led the world in innovation only to see promising industries decline as other nations more successfully commercialise that innovation.
Our region can be the first to bring it to a global market, creating, sustaining and evolving tens of thousands of green jobs and providing sustainable economic growth”
The construction and operation of hydrogen infrastructure at airports will be critical to the roll-out of hydrogen-powered aircraft. With Airbus aiming to make a hydrogen-powered aircraft commercially available in 2035, there is limited time to not only develop the necessary airport infrastructure, but the skills required to refuel these aircraft and handle hydrogen airside, and ensure that there is a reliable, affordable supply of hydrogen available.
Achieving this requires aviation to reach outside of its sector to make connections with those that can generate and transport hydrogen. Many airports are space-constrained and will not have the option of generating and storing hydrogen on-site. Hydrogen South West is an example of a partnership that brings an airport together with the generators of hydrogen, EDF’s Hynamics, with the ability to transport the fuel, Wales & West Utilities, while also connecting a major airline, easyJet, who have made their own significant commitment to hydrogen flight.
There is considerable work to be undertaken to make hydrogen-powered flight a reality by 2035 and we are supporting pilot projects in the South West of England to overcome some of the known barriers, as well as developing the skills and training that will be required. What is clear is that cross-sector partnerships are going to be the only viable route for many airports to build hydrogen infrastructure in a timeframe in line with their nation’s net zero commitments.
Hydrogen South West is a cross-sector consortium working to develop a hydrogen economy on a regional basis. David Eccles argues that partnerships of these kinds offer airports access to a reliable, lower cost supply of hydrogen for the forthcoming transformation to zero emissions flight.
This article was published in International Airport Review’s Clean Aviation Growth eSupplemenet in June 2023. Click here to read the full supplement.
Having retired from the British Army as a Brigadier in 2010, David was the public face of the Hinkley Point C new nuclear power station project for 10 years, acting as the interface between EDF and stakeholders across the region. He is now Director of Hydrogen South West, taking a leading role in the organisation’s formation and development.