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Rolls-Royce, EasyJet fire up first hydrogen-fueled jet engine

Sustainable aviation will require something lighter than batteries

An aviation first has been reached in the UK, with Rolls-Royce and easyJet saying they have conducted the "world's first run of a modern aero engine on hydrogen." 

While the test was ground based, Rolls-Royce said the successful firing of a Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A regional aircraft engine converted for hydrogen power was a major step forward in proving hydrogen fuel as a viable zero-carbon option for the aviation industry. 

What's more, the hydrogen fuel used in the test was gathered by the European Marine Energy Centre at its test facility in the Orkney Islands, where it was collected using renewable power sources.

"This is a true British success story, with the hydrogen being used to power the jet engine today produced using tidal and wind energy from the Orkney Islands of Scotland – and is a prime example of how we can work together to make aviation cleaner while driving jobs across the country," said UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Grant Shapps. 

Shapps noted recent moves to "guilt-free flying" by shifting away from fossil fuels toward carbon-neutral or zero-carbon energy sources.

Rolls-Royce and easyJet said additional runs would follow analysis of the test data, with plans for a full-scale ground test of a Rolls-Royce Pearl 15 jet engine to cap the project. Eventually, the pair said they want to carry out test flights, but no timetable has been publicly set.

What about electric planes?

As for other recent green aviation moves, last year the UK government awarded a meager £700k ($836k) to airports for future-proofing efforts. The cash pool was thinned even further by dividing it up amongst 15 projects that would use it to retrofit facilities and train ground crew to handle both hydrogen and electric aircraft. 

A pair of projects conducted earlier this year elsewhere also bode well for the future of hydrogen as an aviation fuel source. 

The first, conducted at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, found that synthetic gas (or syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon dioxide) can be generated using only moisture and CO2 gathered from the ambient air and reformed in a high-performance solar radiation condenser. 

Because the CO2 used in creating the syngas is pulled from the air, the fuel is carbon neutral and only releases what was gathered in its production.

A second effort out of the University of Melbourne saw a team do something similar by using solar power to extract water vapor from the air and split the hydrogen from the oxygen. That project only produced H2 fuel, not syngas, and was designed to operate in low-humidity environments – like the Australian outback.

Electric aircraft, meanwhile, have been hampered by the same thing that hampers all electronics: Batteries. In this case, their weight

That doesn't mean developments in the electric aerospace realm have stalled. American Airlines in July made reservations for 50 electric aircraft, while United Airlines and regional carriers ordered 200 electric airplanes last year. 

The kicker in both those cases is that they're tiny craft designed to operate as local flying taxis to take commuters to airports, in American's case, and 19-seaters for short hops of up to 200 miles (400km) for United.

Heart, the makers of the 19-seaters bought by United, recently ditched that design in favor of a 30-seat variant with less electric range but the addition of gas-powered backup engines, effectively making it a hybrid that, when burning gas, still only manages to get back into the neighborhood of the 19-seat variation's range. 

Heart believes it will have its 30-seat craft in the air by 2028. 

EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren, meanwhile, said that hydrogen offers "great possibilities for a range of aircraft, including easyJet-sized aircraft." While not a direct dig at battery-powered planes, a look at the low-cost airline's fleet shows it's made up of Airbus A319 and A320-family aircraft, each with a seating capacity in excess of 150 people and a minimum range of 1,711 miles (2,753 km).

Rolls-Royce said the partnership between it and EasyJet was inspired by the UN's race to zero campaign to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 - just a little more than 27 short years away. 

For anyone looking to get net-zero beyond regional flights, that 2050 deadline might require some hydrogen. ®

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