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Japan Airlines is looking at hydrogen-electric-powered aircraft as a solution to the aviation industry's carbon problem

Taylor Rains   

Japan Airlines is looking at hydrogen-electric-powered aircraft as a solution to the aviation industry's carbon problem
  • Japan Airlines is looking at the feasibility of hydrogen-electric aircraft via three new partnerships.
  • The use of hydrogen over kerosene would decrease aircraft CO2 emissions but limit range and capacity.
  • According to the World Bank, more than 98% of the world's hydrogen is made using natural gas or coal.

One of Asia's largest airlines is placing big bets on hydrogen.

In mid-November, Japan Airlines announced a series of deals with global manufacturers of hydrogen-electric aircraft and engines to explore the feasibility of flying emissions-free passenger planes.

These forward-thinking manufacturers are big names in the hydrogen industry and include Germany's H2Fly, California's Universal Hydrogen, and the British-American company ZeroAvia. All three have successfully flown hydrogen-powered aircraft this year.

The technology uses a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity and run electric motors, or hydrogen can be combusted to power engines.

In either case, existing jet engines could be converted to work on hydrogen fuel, and the flights would be carbon-free so long as "green" hydrogen was used, or hydrogen made using renewable energy.

An August study from the International Council on Clean Transportation, a US nonprofit think tank, found hydrogen fuel cells using green liquid hydrogen could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 88%.

A growing market

With hydrogen proving a popular solution and world governments committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, Japan Airlines' new partners are all racing to capitalize on the growing hydrogen market.

In March, Universal Hydrogen flew the world's first hydrogen-powered regional airliner — an ATR 72 turboprop nicknamed Lightning McClean, which operated on hydrogen in only one engine for safety reasons.

The success is part of the company's development of ATR 72 conversion kits, for which it has secured 250 orders. The kits would allow operators to fit existing kerosene-burning aircraft engines with hydrogen-fuel-cell powertrains.

ZeroAvia, a competitor, is pursuing a similar venture with the hydrogen-electric engine it's building for passenger aircraft, describing hydrogen fuel as the "only viable, scalable solution for zero-emission aviation."

With backing from Bill Gates, Amazon, and Shell, ZeroAvia hopes to create powertrains capable of powering planes with anywhere from nine to over 200 people on board by 2040.

The company operated its first hydrogen-electric flight in January using a 19-seater turboprop.

Meanwhile, H2Fly operated the world's first piloted liquid-hydrogen flight in September using its four-seater HY4 demonstrator aircraft. The company said it's looking to size up to regional airliners soon.

Other plane makers, such as Airbus and Embraer, are also building hydrogen-powered aircraft as part of their decarbonization efforts.

Hydrogen powertrains are not strong enough yet to power large airliners

For now, the small prop planes are likely to remain the popular option for hydrogen-powered engines because the current technology is not strong enough to power the medium and large airliners that make up most of the world's passenger jets, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

This is likely not an issue for Japan Airlines, though, as its new partnerships are directed at deploying hydrogen aircraft on short, regional routes around Japan.

"JAL group already operates 50 regional aircraft which will be relevant to hydrogen-electric propulsion technology in the foreseeable future," James Peck, ZeroAvia's chief customer officer, said in a press release.

The airline's regional connector, Japan Air Commuter, already operates a small fleet of ATR 72 planes, so its investment in Universal Hydrogen could prove lucrative thanks to its conversion kits for the turboprop.

There's a downside to using hydrogen on these tinier planes, though.

Because hydrogen is light and requires a lot of storage space because of the immense volume needed compared with kerosene, these smaller aircraft sacrifice range and payload capacity — meaning they could become a cost burden for operators.

But the range issue could be remedied with the use of liquid hydrogen over gaseous hydrogen, as shown by H2Fly's recent flight. According to the company, its September H2Y flight soared 932 miles using liquid hydrogen but only 466 miles using gaseous hydrogen.

"In the years to come, battery-electric and hydrogen-electric propulsion systems will enable us to build aircraft that are quieter and make mid- to long-range air travel possible with zero emissions," Universal Hydrogen said.

The debate between 'green' and 'blue' hydrogen

In addition to range and capacity problems, hydrogen engines have faced pushback from environmental advocates who worry that hydrogen production will further the fossil-fuel crisis.

In October, the Biden administration announced $7 billion in funding to create "clean" hydrogen hubs, two-thirds of which were planned to be dedicated to producing green hydrogen via electrolysis — the process of splitting water into hydrogen and water.

This, however, leaves room for what's known as "blue" hydrogen, created from a combination of natural gas and carbon capture and storage.

The process is considered carbon-neutral, but environmentalists say the burning of natural gas inherently means excess methane emissions — which is a much more potent greenhouse gas compared with CO2, though it doesn't sit in the atmosphere as long.

According to the World Bank, more than 98% of the world's hydrogen is made via natural gas or coal — meaning just a small portion is truly zero-emissions green hydrogen. "Gray" hydrogen — the same as blue minus the carbon capture — is the most abundant.

"It takes a lot of energy to capture the carbon dioxide, and that comes from burning even more natural gas," Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, told Business Insider's Catherine Boudreau in October. "So it's not a surprise to me that the oil and gas industry likes the idea of blue hydrogen."

However, Brian Korgel, the director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, told BI that the companies vying for hydrogen-hub funding had to meet strict criteria.

"There's some safeguards," Korgel said. "These projects have to meet emissions standards, and it's not in companies' benefit to do the smoke-and-mirrors thing because they won't get the grant money, which ratchets up over time."


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