Bristol powers ahead as key centre to get zero-emission hydrogen-fuelled planes off the ground

December 9, 2022

Two major initiatives that build on Bristol’s already significant role in developing zero-emission hydrogen-powered aircraft have been announced, including making Bristol Airport the UK’s first largescale aviation hydrogen hub.

The airport is partnering with European aerospace giant Airbus – which has its main wing design plant at Filton – low-cost airline easyJet and Hynamics, part of French energy group EDF, to explore the viability of hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft. 

They have joined a network of airports in Europe and Asia Pacific which are also investigating hydrogen technology with Airbus.

Meanwhile, aircraft parts manufacturer GKN Aerospace, which supplies Airbus and other planemakers from its plant at Filton, has teamed up with Bristol’s Institute of Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS) to develop its own hydrogen technology to help decarbonise the aviation industry.

They will work together on GKN Aerospace’s Bristol-based ground-breaking H2GEAR programme to pioneer a megawatt scale cryogenic electric drive system using proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells.

The two new initiatives are the latest in a series of projects in and around Bristol that are exploring the commercial potential of hydrogen as a fuel, which can be produced by using electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

If renewable power is used then it is described as ‘green’ hydrogen – a highly sustainable, low carbon energy source.

Bringing forward zero emission technology for flight would not only cut global emissions and secure the long-term future of the aerospace sector – an industry that supports employment for around 100,000 people in the South West – but also create thousands of new green jobs.

Earlier this year Airbus’s Filton plant opened a Zero Emission Development Centre (ZEDC) to lead research into developing what the group is calling a “cost-competitive cryogenic fuel system”.

The centre is supporting the group’s mission to put a commercial hydrogen-powered aircraft into service by 2035.

A modified Airbus A380 ZEROe demonstrator with a hydrogen-powered engine is expected to begin test flights in 2026, pictured above.

IAAPS, which is based on the Bristol & Bath Science Park at Emersons Green, is planning to open the South West’s first manufacturing plant for sustainable green hydrogen next spring.

The project bringing together Airbus, Hynamics, Bristol Airport and easyJet – the airport’s largest airline – will create a network of hydrogen experts capable of assessing the local and global hydrogen supply chains, forecasting future hydrogen-powered aircraft traffic and exploring how a hydrogen supply at Bristol Airport could also fuel other forms of transport, such as HGVs and other heavy vehicles.

Last month easyJet, which currently has 16 aircraft based at Bristol Airport, announced an ambitious roadmap to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with hydrogen playing a key role.

The airline will shortly begin ground testing hydrogen-powered engines with aero giant Rolls-Royce, which also has a plant at Filton.

EasyJet sustainability director Jane Ashton said the airline was committed to working towards a future with zero carbon-emission flying.

“We know that technology is a key driver to achieve our decarbonisation targets, with hydrogen propulsion expected to be critical for short-haul airlines like easyJet,” she said.

“This partnership will provide vital lessons on how the fuel can be used in the real world and builds on our strong relationship with Bristol Airport.”

Bristol Airport, which aims to make its own operations net zero by 2030, is making itself available as a testbed for new technology as part of its efforts to cut emissions.

Its director of sustainability and corporate affairs Simon Earles said: “Bristol Airport is delighted to be joining the ranks of prestigious airports around the world in working with Airbus to deliver zero emissions flight.

“We’re committed to leading on sustainability and opening ourselves up as a testbed for new technology.”

Airbus VP – zero emission aircraft, Glenn Llewellyn, said having a range of different airport projects was vital preparation for the arrival of its Zero Emission Aircraft from 2035.

“It’s exciting for us to collaborate and learn with valued partners in this project as part of a dynamic UK hydrogen ecosystem,” he added.

GKN Aerospace and IAAPS said their collaboration was not only a key step in the development of commercially viable hydrogen technologies for aviation, but also made a significant contribution towards the government’s hydrogen strategy, which aims to establish a thriving low carbon hydrogen sector by 2030, driving the transition to net zero.

IAAPS will deliver key aspects of the comprehensive testing and validation programme at its centre with both green hydrogen gas production and liquid hydrogen gas storage facility.

The multi-year, multi-million-pound project will take in both component and system level testing of hybrid hydrogen and electric architecture as well as driving investment in infrastructure for the delivery of gaseous and liquid hydrogen and development of cryogenic cooling systems.

H2GEAR aims to develop a liquid hydrogen propulsion system for sub-regional aircraft that could be scaled up to larger aircraft.

IAAPS commercial director Tony Reid said: “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to support GKN Aerospace’s first hydrogen propulsion system for sub-regional aircraft and to play a key part in the delivery of the next generation of innovative, sustainable powertrain technologies.

“These technologies will have far reaching impact in achieving net zero targets and reducing the global reliance on carbon, not just in aviation, but also across the wider transport industry.”

GKN Aerospace VP technology Max Brown added: “Hydrogen technology is an essential component in the successful and rapid decarbonisation of the aviation industry and we are delighted to establish this strategic partnership with IAAPS.

“The collaboration will allow GKN to further develop our expertise in zero carbon propulsion technologies, using IAAPS’ state-of-the-art hydrogen and propulsion research capabilities, therefore fast-tracking the validation and delivery of clean, hydrogen-powered aircraft.”


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