Airbus unveils three concepts for hydrogen-powered commercial planes

The concepts, which range from a turboprop commuter plane to a blended wing design, would fly with modified gas turbine engines that burn liquid hydrogen as fuel.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
2 min read

The three concepts all have different designs for different commercial markets.


Zero-emission cars are now so common they're almost boring, but zero-emission airplanes are another matter. They do exist -- Seattle-based Matrix Aviation flew the largest electric aircraft over Washington state this year -- but they're a long way from carrying paying passengers.

But Airbus wants to play a role when that day arrives. The aerospace company last week unveiled three concepts for hydrogen-powered aircraft, with designs that range from downright conventional to radically different.

Though a flying machine powered by hydrogen may seem like a worrying concept for anyone who knows the Hindenburg disaster, today's hydrogen aircraft work on safer and proven technologies like hydrogen fuel cells not too different from the ones that power cars. That's the case for California startup ZeroAvia, which achieved the first flight of a hydrogen-powered commuter plane in the UK on Sunday.

Airbus plans to incorporate hydrogen power in a different way. The hydrogen-hybrid aircraft are powered by modified gas turbine engines that burn liquid hydrogen as fuel. They also use hydrogen fuel cells to create electrical power that complements the gas turbine.

Watch this: Pushing for the future of electric flight, one small plane at a time

"As recently as five years ago, hydrogen propulsion wasn't even on our radar as a viable emission-reduction technology pathway," Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus vice president of zero-emission aircraft, said in a statement. "But convincing data from other transport industries quickly changed all that. Today, we're excited by the incredible potential hydrogen offers aviation in terms of disruptive emissions reduction."

Here's an overview of the three concepts (all pictured above):

  • The largest mostly resembles an existing Airbus A321. It has two hybrid-hydrogen turbofan engines with the liquid hydrogen storage and distribution system located behind the rear pressure bulkhead.
  • Most likely meant for commuter routes, a concept that looks a bit like a De Havilland Dash 8 would have two hybrid hydrogen turboprop engines each driving eight-bladed propellers. The liquid hydrogen storage and distribution system would also be located behind the rear pressure bulkhead.
  • The last concept is the most radical, but it's something we've seen before. It calls for the blended wing MAVERIC design that Airbus flew as a pilotless demonstrator in February. Two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines provide thrust with the liquid hydrogen storage tanks stored underneath the wings.

If all goes well in its development program, Airbus said full-scale prototypes could be ready by the end of the decade with commercial service starting by 2035.