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Airplanes are terrible for the environment. Could Airbus’s redesign change that?

Zero emission commercial planes could be here by 2035. Is that soon enough?

Airplanes are terrible for the environment. Could Airbus’s redesign change that?
[Image: Airbus]

Air travel is a major contributor to global warming, and emissions from the industry are growing at an alarming rate. It’s become abundantly clear that something drastic needs to be done to make plans more sustainable.

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Airbus is trying to do something about that. The airline has plans to introduce planes that are free of carbon emissions in 2035, the year one study calls the “point of no return” to address global warming. The zero emission aircraft would be powered by hydrogen, which emits water rather than carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned.

In recent years, some airlines have made efforts to become more sustainable through carbon offsets and increased fuel efficiency, but when it comes to relative size and impact, those efforts are a drop in the bucket, especially considering that demand for air travel is expected to grow. Airbus itself has 12,000 airliners in operation—and it expects global air passenger traffic to double by the 2030s.

[Image: Airbus]
The Airbus concepts do away with fossil fuels entirely, as the planes will be powered by hydrogen. They’re currently looking at three possible designs. Two of them (the “turbo prop” and “turbo jet”) have engines under the wings, which are similar to current aircraft and could travel 1,000 or 2,000 nautical miles, respectively. (The planes would have to be longer, however, as hydrogen takes up more space, according to Airbus Americas vice president of research and technology Amanda Simpson.) The third, and “more revolutionary,” design, according to Simpson, is the “blended wing body,” which is redesigned in the shape of an arrow. It has more interior volume to efficiently store hydrogen, and could travel the furthest distance at over 2,000 nautical miles. Simpson said Airbus will work with its suppliers and partners over the next few years to further the technology for each design.

Simpson says the airplanes themselves aren’t the only components that have to be redesigned in order to get this idea off the ground. There’s an entire global “ecosystem” that will have to be reimagined.

[Image: Airbus]
To that end, she says energy producers will need to create clean hydrogen fuel from renewable resources like wind or solar rather than coal, and the long haul trucks that transport it will need to be more sustainable. On top of that, infrastructure will need to account for the fact that liquid hydrogen is kept at 450 degrees below zero, which necessitates special tanks, plumbing, and equipment. “There are a lot of things that have to be determined in the next decade,” Simpson says.

While hydrogen fuel has been around for a long time, the “technology to produce it at a large scale didn’t exist,” says Simpson, adding, that the ability to store hydrogen, “will probably be the largest challenge to overcome.” By taking this step, Airbus is acknowledging that it’s necessary to rethink existing systems “if we want to slow down global warming and have a civilization that can live for another couple hundred years,” Simpson says. “We have to take that step away from burning fuels that create carbon dioxide.” The question for the planet is whether or not the rest of the aviation industry will follow suit—and whether 2035 will be too late.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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