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The New Hydrogen-Powered Aircraft from Airbus Is Beautiful. Will It Work?

Photo credit: Airbus
Photo credit: Airbus

From Popular Mechanics

After teasing hydrogen innovation in a July panel, Airbus has released prototypes of a line of hydrogen aircraft, including a passenger airliner, a prop-boosted plane, and a wild stealth-looking little blended wing the company says represents the farther future of passenger aircraft.

You like badass planes. So do we. Let's nerd out over them together.

At that panel, Airbus’s vice president for zero emissions technology said he believed hydrogen made sense as a stepping stone from fossil fuels, and suggested pulling up automotive technology to help give aeronautics engineers a little bit of a head start. Now, Airbus has shared three prototypes, just one of which looks like a familiar airliner silhouette:

Photo credit: Airbus
Photo credit: Airbus

The first concept aircraft is a traditional-looking passenger airliner that Airbus says will carry between 100 and 200 passengers—so in the range of the Airbus A318 or A319 up to the Airbus 310 or comparable, and including the range of the perennially popular Boeing 737.

This airliner, Airbus says, will have a traditional engine setup that will run on liquid hydrogen instead of today’s jet fuel. Presumably to head off concerns about combustion, Airbus says the hydrogen will be stored at the extreme rear end of the plane: “behind the rear pressure bulkhead,” CNBC reports.

The second concept is smaller than the first, but also uses blended propulsion with powerful turboprop engines supported by hydrogen fuel. It also has broader wing blades mounted from the top or shoulder of the plane and a T-top tail. The overall design looks kind of like the De Havilland Canada Dash 8, which dates back to 1983, but has been made in its largest-ever size since 1999.

The third concept is where all comparisons fail—it’s a blended wing that Airbus says will be able to carry as many as 200 passengers. To date, there are no production blended wings that carry passengers.

Photo credit: Airbus
Photo credit: Airbus

Most have been prototypes or concepts, and different military projects have made modified versions for real life. The Airbus image looks more like the shuttlecraft seen on major science fiction TV shows, with a bulbous cabin chased by sleek, tiny wings.

Photo credit: Airbus
Photo credit: Airbus

Airbus explains this concept:

“The exceptionally wide interior opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution. Here, the liquid hydrogen storage tanks are stored underneath the wings. Two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines provide thrust.”

CNBC says Airbus’s concept planes “could enter service by the year 2035,” but Airbus’s own language is more circumspect.

“If hydrogen technology development progresses at the expected rate, Airbus’ highly anticipated zero-emission commercial aircraft is expected to roll off the assembly line for entry-into-service by 2035,” the company explains, indicating just the first model—a near lookalike for a current Airbus model.

If indeed Airbus wants to make a 200-passenger hydrogen blended wing for service beginning in 2035, we’ll let you know.

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