In a first, Rolls-Royce and easyJet successfully test a hydrogen-powered aircraft engine

The test is a stepping stone to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
Jijo Malayil
Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A Hydrogen Test at Boscombe Down.
Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A Hydrogen Test at Boscombe Down.

Rolls-Royce plc/Flickr 

In what can be considered a promising first step towards transforming the aviation industry to become carbon-neutral, a project led by Rolls-Royce and easyJet has successfully tested a modern-day jet engine that runs solely on hydrogen. 

The prototype for the experiment, which was conducted at a test facility at the Ministry of Defence Boscombe Down, U.K., was a commonly-used Rolls-Royce AE-2100A regional aircraft engine. The turbine was supplied with 'green' hydrogen, which was made by splitting water into its constituent components at European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkney Islands, U.K. 

"We are pushing the boundaries to discover the zero carbon possibilities of hydrogen, which could help reshape the future of flight," Grazia Vittadini, chief technology officer of Rolls-Royce, said in a statement.

In a first, Rolls-Royce and easyJet successfully test a hydrogen-powered aircraft engine
Inspection of the engine.

How can hydrogen transform the aviation industry?

The aviation industry is estimated to be responsible for around 12 percent of carbon emissions from all transport sources, according to the Air Transport Action Group

The experiment gains prominence as the size of batteries required to propel a civilian airplane has, for the time being, sidelined the option of electric-powered vehicles in aviation. "We looked at battery technology, and it was quite clear that the battery technology was probably not going to do it for the large commercial aircraft that we fly," David Morgan, easyJet's chief operating officer," told BBC News

This is where hydrogen is being looked at as a possible alternative to replace fossil fuels. "The beauty of looking at a fuel like hydrogen is that it doesn't contain any carbon and, therefore, when it burns, it produces no CO2," Alan Newby, director of aerospace technology at Rolls-Royce, told BBC News

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A net-zero race to 2050

The project was inspired by the UN-backed 'Race to Zero' campaign, which aims to make the world carbon-neutral by the year 2050. 

"We are committed to continuing to support this ground-breaking research because hydrogen offers great possibilities for a range of aircraft, including easyJet-sized aircraft. That will be a huge step forward in meeting the challenge of net zero by 2050," said Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet. 

Options like Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which are derived from "renewable biomass and waste resources, have the potential to deliver the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel but with a fraction of its carbon footprint," according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.  

In a first, Rolls-Royce and easyJet successfully test a hydrogen-powered aircraft engine
Hydrogen storage tanks at Boscombe Down.

How practical is the usage of hydrogen? 

The practical implications of this experiment are a long way coming as solutions to integrate the fuel in aircraft — which needs to be stored at ultra-low temperatures (-253C) and turned back into gaseous form for ignition — can become quite a tricky task. 

Liquid hydrogen fuel is also estimated to take up nearly four times the volume when compared to traditional aviation fuels, resulting in the need for airline firms completely rehaul the structure of the airplanes to fulfill these requirements. 

Both Rolls Royce and easyJet plan to continue the partnership to complete a "series of further rig tests leading up to a full-scale ground test of a Rolls-Royce Pearl 15 jet engine". These tests are treated as stepping stones to their future ambition to carry out flight tests.