Japan Airlines fuels up on hydrogen hype with eye on cleaner skies

Jet-setting to a greener future?

Japan Airlines is looking into the feasibility of using hydrogen-electric engines to power aircraft in future, and is working with three engineering outfits to study issues such as safety and maintainability.

The flagship carrier for Japan said it has signed agreements with three companies involved in hydrogen-electric aviation. This is part of a project aimed at bringing hydrogen-fueled aircraft into service for regional routes around Japan in an effort to decarbonize commercial airline flights.

All three companies have already achieved hydrogen-fueled test flights, according to Japan Airlines, using hydrogen in fuel cells to generate power for electric motors rather than being burned in conventional combustion engines.

This approach to hydrogen power is typically intended for propeller-driven planes covering relatively short distances, hence the emphasis on regional routes.

The study is set to evaluate the powertrain requirements needed for varying flight distances and aircraft size as well as examining the safety, economic feasibility, and maintainability of the technology for future airliner operations around Japan.

One of the companies, Stuttgart-based H2FLY, tested a hydrogen-electric demonstrator aircraft in September this year, which it claimed as the first piloted flight of such a vehicle.

The company claimed the test flights were completed using cryogenically stored liquid hydrogen to power the HY4 aircraft, and the results indicate that using liquid hydrogen in place of gaseous hydrogen would double the maximum range of the aircraft from 750 km to 1,500 km.

"We are now looking ahead to scaling up our technology for regional aircraft and other applications, beginning the critical mission of decarbonizing commercial aviation," H2FLY CEO and co-founder Professor Josef Kallo said at the time.

ZeroAvia, a British-American company, is putting forward its ZA2000 engine platform, described as a 2-5.4 MW hydrogen-electric propulsion system for 40-90 seat regional turboprops. This is scheduled to come into service in 2027.

One of the things ZeroAvia will look at is assessing retrofitted hydrogen-electric aircraft for existing and prospective routes, as well as developing hydrogen fuel infrastructure and engine maintenance, repair, and overhaul practices.

"Japan plans massive investment in hydrogen supply and also in supporting the development of hydrogen aviation, so there is clear opportunity for exploring early adoption," the company's chief customer officer, James Peck, said in a statement.

The third company, California-based Universal Hydrogen, has already developed a conversion kit for existing turboprop aircraft such as the De Havilland Canada Dash-8, but its involvement in this study is also in building a supply of green hydrogen for Japanese airlines. It has developed what it calls modular hydrogen capsules that can be transported from production sites using existing freight networks.

Japan Airlines Engineering (JALEC) president Ryo Tamura said in a statement that hydrogen could solve a number of key challenges including CO₂ and non-CO₂ emissions from aviation propulsion.

"It is important that we explore the potential benefits and challenges for hydrogen aviation with the leaders in the sector as a matter of urgency. Our collaboration will lead and contribute to safe and sustainable aviation in Japan," he said.

Other moves towards hydrogen-fueled airliners have come from European multinational aerospace corporation Airbus, which said it intends to have hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035. It is looking at both fuel cells and aircraft powered by hydrogen combustion, using gas turbines with modified fuel injectors.

Rolls-Royce and UK budget airline EasyJet claimed to have conducted the "world's first run of a modern aero engine on hydrogen" last year, using an engine converted to burn hydrogen, which the pair said they hoped would lead to test flights, but no timetable was detailed at the time.

The runway to hydrogen powered planes remains long and uncertain. ®

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