HYDROGEN-POWERED AVIATION: “No Nobel Prize discoveries needed”

The Swedish Energy Agency along with GKN Aerospace in Trollhättan and partners are investing a combined 24 million kronor to develop components for hydrogen-powered aircraft engines. We had a chat about the initiative with Anders Sjunnesson from GKN, who also serves on LIGHTer’s board of directors.  

Europe’s aviation industry is investing heavily to enable zero emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050. Hydrogen has been singled out as one of the fuels of the future for aviation, with aircraft manufacturer Airbus sticking its neck out by launching three concept aircraft using hydrogen technology which it wants to see in the skies by 2035. The aviation industry is putting its greatest hope in a solution for medium and large aircraft that shifts from kerosene-based fuel to hydrogen in jet engines. This project was launched to accelerate that development. 

“The 15 million in funding from the Swedish Energy Agency is quite large for such an early stage of development. Both Europe and Sweden have woken up and now see hydrogen as a very realistic way to end our use of fossil fuels. Commercial aircraft with hundreds of passengers won’t be replaced by electrified air travel in the near future. There are physical barriers that we don’t yet know how to cross. But hydrogen is a strong contender. Hydrogen, of course, also needs to be produced sustainably. There’s hope for this – so even though there are challenges, no Nobel Prize discoveries are needed to make advances in hydrogen technology.”

How close to commercialization is this technology?

“We believe we’ll be able to show that the technology works around 2035. The date seems far off, but not if you have your aviator glasses on, considering all the safety requirements that must be met, for instance. And then there are some political and infrastructural hurdles, meaning that nothing is likely to happen on a broader front until 2040.”

When will ordinary people get to board a hydrogen-powered flight on their charter holiday?

“We might see a handful of flights just after 2040.”

That still sounds far away. What’s the role of hydrogen-powered flights in achieving the climate goals?

“None for achieving the climate goals by 2030, but the 2050 targets are the ones we’re aiming for. Aircraft development has long lead times. Major investments and major political decisions are both necessary. And because this development can’t just happen on commercial terms, the government has got to be involved in financing it.”

What have you received funding for?

“We’re going to do a system analysis and description of what an engine could look like for this technology to work. What new technical solutions do we need in the engine during refuelling? Hydrogen will be supplied in tanks in cryogenic form (extremely low temperatures so that the hydrogen becomes a liquid). We’ll look at how the hydrogen will be pumped, routed through piping, and how it should be heated before being injected into the jet engine. These will be the keys to commercial success, and we want to be first.”

Motor: GKN

What is the role of lightweight technology in all this?

“Lightweighting is a mantra for the aviation industry, for understandable reasons. All gadgets and components need to be lightweight in the air. The more weight you have up in the air, the more it costs. Hydrogen will not be an unlimited resource. So we’ll see competition for that energy, too.” 

You’ve been involved in LIGHTer for some time now. What has LIGHTer meant for this project? 

“LIGHTer is good for the network. We’ve gotten to know lots of the people involved in our current project through LIGHTer. When new challenges arise, it’s great to have these contacts. Some of the circumstances and prerequisites are similar for aviation and other industries, so hopefully some of what we do can come in handy for other sectors too.” 

Photo: Anders Sjunnesson (privat)

In addition to GKN Aerospace in Trollhättan, project members come from Chalmers University of Technology, Lund University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, University West, RISE, and the company Oxeon.

Airbus-plane: Airbus
Motor: GKN 
Anders: Private
Text: Ingemar Tigerberg 

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