Zero-emission large passenger aircraft powered by hydrogen will be technically feasible in five years, according to Airbus, but they will not enter service for at least a decade as the price of the fuel needs to come down.
The prediction comes from Glenn Llewellyn, vice-president of zero-emissions technology at the pan-European plane-maker.
He said that while Airbus planned to demonstrate hydrogen-powered aircraft in 2025, “over the next 10 years, hydrogen won’t be more economic than the fossil fuel equivalent”.
To get to a point where the price is comparable, Mr Llewellyn said: “Government incentives are definitely required… like what we’ve seen in the renewable energy sector so far.”
For passengers to be flying genuinely emissions free aboard hydrogen-powered planes - which emit only water and heat - their fuel needs to come from hydrogen produced via renewable sources such as wind and solar, he added.
In an interview ahead of the BloombergNEF London Summit, Mr Llewellyn said: “We already see massive increases in the amount of renewable energy being produced across the world. Wind energy production has multiplied by two over the last five years and solar energy production has multiplied by four.”
A further hurdle is building up the ecosystem that hydrogen aircraft, along with other forms of transport, will need. This ranges from creating the fuel from electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen powered by renewable energy, to the actual transport of the gas and fuelling systems for it at airports.
However, Mr Llewellyn predicted that there was enough interest in the sector to make this happen.
He added: “There are a number of independent institutes that have mapped out how hydrogen costs can come down over the next decades. We see a 30pc reduction in renewable hydrogen costs in 2030 compared to where it is today, and a 50pc reduction in renewable hydrogen costs by 2050.
“They are exactly the kind of cost figures that are interesting for us, because it makes zero-emission aviation commercially viable in the 2030s.”
Last month UK-based ZeroAvia conducted the world’s first flight of a commercial-grade aircraft powered by a hydrogen fuel cell when it flew a six-seater Piper Malibu plane from Cranfield University’s airport.
The aircraft did two circuits of the Bedfordshire airfield, reaching 1,000ft and 100 knots, during the eight-minute flight.
The flight was used to demonstrate ZeroAvia’s 800-volt emission-free powertrain, which turns hydrogen into electricity to drive the Piper’s propeller.
A few days before, Airbus unveiled a series of design proposals for hydrogen-driven aircraft, including a “blended wing” concept that provides greater storage capacity.
This design could be key to hydrogen-powered aircraft as the fuel is less energy dense than conventional fuel and so requires more space to match performance of existing aeroplanes.