Airbus plans hydrogen flights for A380 aircraft

avión A380 Airbus

After successful testing of the hydrogen fuel cell system, Airbus is preparing to integrate this propulsion system on its ZEROe test bench, using a A380 aircraft Airbus registered as F-WWOW, with the aim of carrying out flight tests from 2026.

Recently, Airbus teams successfully ignited the “iron capsule,” which is the future hydrogen propulsion system designed for the concept of the electric aircraft company’s electric aircraft concept. This capsule houses the electric motors needed to drive a propeller, the control and cooling units and the hydrogen fuel cell system.

The successful ignition, with a power output of 1.2 MW, represents a crucial milestone in Airbus’ ZEROe roadmap, which aims to bring a hydrogen-powered aircraft into service by 2035.

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In June 2023, the Airbus team successfully completed testing of the hydrogen fuel cell system, achieving its maximum capacity of 1.2 MW. During the same year, the prototype propulsion system, which includes both the hydrogen fuel cell and electric motors, was ignited at the same power output of 1.2 MW at the E-Aircraft House facility in Munich.

The flight of the A380 aircraft

These 1.2 MW, obtained during the tests, are the same power that Airbus intends to evaluate on the A380 flight demonstrator, according to Mathias Andriamisaina, Head of Test and Demonstration for the ZEROe project. This test represented the highest power level achieved to date in aviation for a fuel cell designed specifically for large aircraft, thus laying the groundwork for the next crucial step in the project: full integration of the propulsion system with the electric motor.

In late 2023, the initial ignition of the iron capsule’s electric motors in conjunction with the hydrogen fuel cells was carried out. The next step for the ZEROe team is to continue testing and optimize the size, weight and specifications of the propulsion system to suit the flight conditions.

Notably, the ZEROe team plans to continue testing the first iteration of the iron capsule throughout this year. Once these tests are completed, the size, weight and characteristics of the propulsion system will be optimized to meet flight specifications, considering aspects such as system reactions to vibrations, humidity and altitude, among other factors.

After completion of optimization and testing, the fuel cell propulsion system will be installed on the ZEROe multimodal flight test platform, the first prototype produced by Airbus, dubbed the number one plate. The systems will then undergo ground testing before entering the crucial flight test phase on the prototype itself, with a schedule set for 2026.

“Through this process we learn what changes need to be made to make the technology flight-ready,” explains Hauke Peer-Luedders, who is responsible for ZEROe’s fuel cell propulsion system.”

“We measured how the propulsion system as a whole performs by testing the power required for several different flight phases, such as takeoff, where we reach maximum power levels, and cruise flight, where we use less power, but for a longer period of time.”

What is the ZEROe project?

Its name derives from “zero emissions” and represents Airbus’ initiative to address the growing demand for sustainable aviation technologies. ZEROe’s main goal is to develop a hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035 by implementing innovative technologies and concepts.

In 2020, Airbus unveiled four different hydrogen-powered aircraft concepts to the public. Three of these concepts incorporated hydrogen combustion engines and hybrids for propulsion, while the fourth was all-electric and employed hydrogen fuel cells along with a propeller propulsion system.

By transforming hydrogen into electricity through a chemical reaction, fuel cells generate virtually zero emissions, their only by-product being pure water. Despite the considerable potential offered by hydrogen fuel cells to decarbonize aviation, there was a significant challenge to overcome. At the start of the ZEROe project, no existing hydrogen fuel cell was capable of supplying the energy required to propel an aircraft while remaining within acceptable weight limits.

To address this challenge, Airbus entered into a partnership with ElringKlinger in October 2020, forming the Aerostack joint venture. The company’s primary objective is to develop hydrogen fuel cells that can provide the energy needed for the electric propulsion systems of the ZEROe project aircraft.

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