Europe is emerging as the leading location for green aviation solutions as the continent edges closer to becoming a net-zero emissions economy by mid-century. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are recognizing the urgent need to decarbonize the aviation industry in order to avoid the protests and legislative restrictions on growth that have been seen in other countries – and this is where Europe’s expertise in green technologies is coming to the fore.
Airbus SE, the world’s biggest aircraft maker, is betting that planes powered by hydrogen could be a solution for zero-emissions flying and, in line with its goal, it will have a hydrogen-powered model in service by the middle of the next decade. To that end, the company is converting the first A380 superjumbo that it ever built into a demonstrator aircraft, which is scheduled to perform flight tests of a hydrogen combustion engine mounted on its fuselage starting in 2026. Its ZeroE aircraft program VP, Glenn Llewellyn, is openly eager to shape aviation so that it can continue to “physically connect the world in the future”.
Meanwhile, competitors such as Boeing Co. are also trailing hydrogen fueled aircrafts; they have been testing hydrogen fuel cells on their ScanEagle3 pilotless military drones since last year. But with the technical and economic hurdles posed by hydrogen and it being far more flammable than kerosene, companies have been exploring SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) as a bridge to true zero-emissions aircraft. SAF is chemically similar to jet fuel, but produced from feedstocks containing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere rather than requiring the extraction of petroleum, thus making it a greener option.
In an effort to make airline travel carbon neutral, the European Union has proposed that all aircraft fuel to contain 2% SAF starting in 2025, but for now, SAF production is severely limited, and airline executives say global annual output would barely fuel their fleets for a few days. With SAF currently being three to five times more expensive than regular jet fuel, the industry is pushing for subsidies to help with the higher production costs. This has been echoed by Deutsche Lufthansa AG CEO Carsten Spohr, who said that even those willing to pay for the most expensive first-class tickets are not necessarily willing to pay for the extra €500 required to fly carbon neutral by purchasing SAF.
Battery powered planes have also been proposed as a solution, but they have major drawbacks: they’re heavy and they deliver much less energy for the weight than kerosene. This raises other challenges, as batteries usually retain their weight throughout the journey whereas liquid fuel burns off. Heart Aerospace AB is testing battery powered planes that can fly 30 passengers around 200 kilometers, but it won’t see its products in service until 2028.
Overall, flying is set to become more expensive when it comes to being sustainably produced. But, as companies like Synhelion SA have demonstrated through their solar-powered SAF production processes, sustainable flying solutions are becoming increasingly plausible. The industry will have to work to find a balance between economic growth, climate action and the need to physically connect the world in the future – and with Europe’s pushing the boundary of green technologies, it won’t be too long before we begin to see the impact of these solutions.
Airbus is a multinational aerospace giant headquartered in Toulouse, France with a wide range of products, including commercial aircraft and defense missiles. With a staff of over 134,000 and revenue of over €72 billion, Airbus has long been the world leader in aircraft manufacturing and is at the forefront of green technologies for the aviation industry.
Glenn Llewellyn is the Vice President of Zeroe Aircraft at Airbus and is pushing to help shape aviation the industry can continue to “physically connect the world in the future”. With a passion for green solutions, Llewellyn has been at the forefront of the ZeroE aircraft program for Airbus and is committed to overseeing the retrofitting of the Airbus A380 superjumbo to a demonstrator aircraft that will use hydrogen combustion engines.