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Powering aviation with hydrogen

Powering aviation with hydrogen

Author: First published by Hydrogen South West

The aviation sector accounts for 6% of all UK greenhouse gases. It’s therefore unsurprising that a key challenge the country faces is ensuring that the sector plays its part in supporting our march to net zero by 2050. The recently announced Jet Zero strategy is central to tackling this challenge.

Gareth Davis is Net Zero, Hydrogen Economy and Energy Efficiency Consultant at Costain.

“Having worked in the energy space for more than 20 years, it is fascinating to see that momentum is really building now. I can safely say that the means to achieve net zero already exist; what’s needed is deeper collaboration between industry and Government to truly deliver them,” says Gareth.

Achieving net zero aviation

One area that Gareth and his colleagues continue to focus on is the role of hydrogen in decarbonising the aviation industry.  

Building on the Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the recently published Jet Zero Strategy outlines how the industry will achieve a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050[i]. However as yet, there is no clear roadmap for the delivery of the strategy, as Gareth explains.

“Take the technology – the principles have been proven and now early investment is required to unlock its full potential. The good news is we know it can be done - if you look at offshore wind, the sector had lots of early government investment which allowed it to really ramp up the implementation of the technology, making a big impact on the amount of electricity the UK can produce using renewables.

“This investment is vital to driving change. We recently carried out an intensive 12-month research project, led by the Aerospace Technology Institute and backed by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. This one-of-a-kind research project brought together experts from across the UK, aiming to realise zero carbon emissions in commercial aviation by 2030.

“A key focus for the project to understand was turnaround time – a vital part of commercial operations as aircraft need to be in the air, not spending time on the ground being refuelled. Although, initially at least, refuelling with hydrogen will take longer, we’re currently exploring the possibility of flying from say, Manchester to Barcelona without needing to refuel before the return trip, which could save both time and cost.”

“But this is just one exciting and ambitious project; there’s lots more going on across the aviation industry to reduce the environmental impact of flying. One relatively small change would be using hydrogen-powered ground vehicles at airports – this starts to normalise the use of hydrogen in an aviation context, setting the tone for future uptake, eventually by aircraft.

Accelerating the change

Things are moving in the right direction. Gareth is seeing greater collaboration between industry and Government to bring about the change that is needed.

“Industry is collaborating more effectively than ever before, for example Costain is a founding member of the Hydrogen South West partnership, which has been set up to accelerate the transition to hydrogen across South West England, particularly within the aviation sector.”

“We are beginning to see low carbon alternatives become commonplace, including Battery Electric vehicle charging, electrification of heating, heat pumps, as well as the development of hydrogen for transport and heat.”

While attitudes have started to shift, there is still a lot to be done to ensure the public grasp the role every person plays in delivering net zero.

“While there are positive signs, we need to focus on the immediate consumer impact to drive public opinion towards renewable take-up, energy independence and sufficiency in the UK. People need to have concise, accurate information, so they can make better, more sustainable decisions.

“A vital part of our work is stakeholder liaison; working with people from a diverse background to inform and educate them on the development of resilient, low carbon energy ecosystems.”

Filling the void

As with many sectors driving towards net zero, there remains a significant challenge fromthe skills gap.

“This remains a major challenge across all industrial sectors but for net zero, we must consider that there are existing roles in the UK economy which already have the core skills to support decarbonisation. So, for me, it is a case for refresher training for those roles, instead of training someone in a completely new skill.

“But, taking a sporting analogy, we want people to join the team and get on the pitch. There are so many ways to make a difference. So do get in touch.”

Gareth’s comments demonstrate the ambitions for the UK aviation sector to decarbonise are dependent on innovation and investment being implemented at the outset of the process. Tapping into expertise and technology not only in aviation but across other sectors and industries, will be vital to ensure consumers are able to make sustainable travel choices.

Find out more about the FlyZero project here

[i] Department for Transport, Jet Zero Strategy: Delivering net zero aviation by 2050, 2022, p. 14.