Bjorn’s Corner: The challenges of hydrogen. Part 34. Series wrap-up

By Bjorn Fehrm

April 23, 2021, ©. Leeham News: I said last week we spend this final Corner on hydrogen-fueled air transport, describing projects outside the big ones, like Airbus.

But more important events took place in the week with implications for sustainable air transport. We wrap up by describing these and speculate where these take us.

“The thin blue layer that enables life on our rock planet.” Source: President Biden’s introduction to the climate summit.

Top summit on Global Climate

The US President, Joe Biden, hosted a 40 country summit on the climate this week, attended by America, China, Russia, and the EU. The summit was a preparation for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November.

Many states raised their targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction; among them, the US now slashes emissions by 50-52% by 2030.

The key takeaway is not the new or lower targets; all key countries, including China, now recognize we have an acute crisis and that the time for action is now.

There is a realization a lot of new technology is needed in a de-carbonized world, and those that invest in emissions reduction technology will be winners in the future economy. Therefore, as governments realize the crisis is unavoidable, it’s better to be part of the drivers than the laggards.

What does this mean for air transport?

It means the race is heating up. The US has been sleeping while the EU has moved forward on key initiatives. European industry has benefitted with research money flowing to programs like Clean Sky’s emission programs and directed hydrogen research.

As the decade unfolds, we can expect the US to get going and China. This will benefit industry and research organizations as programs get defined to develop the technology need.

We can expect governments with sticks and carrots to drive airlines to more sustainable investments and to foster more discipline in how we fly. IATA’s new Director-General, Willy Walsh, lashed out at European ATCs (with a clear address to the one in my country, France) for blocking needed reforms to a unified European sky.

A major change has taken place with US carriers. United’s CEO, Scott Kirby, declared last month, “Climate change is the defining issue for our generation to solve.” Other airlines set down their targets for de-carbonization of their operation, latest Alaska Airlines that this week set a course for net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.


As I started the Corner series with “e” in ePlane standing for environment and not electric followed by the hydrogen series, the momentum for sustainable air transport was spotty, with Europe as a proponent and the rest of the world looking on and wondering, “Is this good for business?”.

Since then, we have entered a Pandemic, not seen for 100 years, that caused the deepest crisis in air transport since World War II. With the change of leadership in the US, we now have a total change in the consensus of the world’s no. 1 problem, climate change.

We can now foresee a decade of intense development. This will change from hundreds of upstarts proposing UAMs or drone ideas into major research programs around greenhouse gas-reducing actions and technologies.

The effect can be as profound as the Moon landing project during the 1960s, promoting changes in energy supply, distribution, and savings that will shape the next 50 if not 100 years.


40 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: The challenges of hydrogen. Part 34. Series wrap-up

  1. It will be interesting to see what mix of non CO2 power generation will be installed on a big scale. Sea based wind energy seems pretty well on its way with 12-15MW units getting certified and US, Germany, Denmark, Japan leading the group for now. Hydro power and nuclear has its opponents, for Aircraft there might be US government funding for NASA/Boeing Truss Brazed Aircraft on a big scale with new UDF engines burning a good mix of fuels and Japan might fund a development of the MRJ in a similar way. EU already is funding Airbus but might loose the engine race again as RR is still a UK company with EU money trickling to RR Germany.

    • It is French Safran that is active in the UDF domain.
      A longstanding project.

      Question is how the setup for single purpose coops will develop after Brexit. ( EuroProp, EuroJet, TurboUnion ) Will RR continue to be included?

      • Remember RR has a German part. All Clean Sky and EU activities are now in RR Dalewitz’s name.

      • EU doesnt have a ‘national’ grouping together of aerospace activities.
        Safran is in GEs camp for civil engines, and Italians airframe activities are connected to Boeing and engines with GE. Saab is working with Boeing on T-7. Airbus uses a lot of non EU parts including from Spirits US and Northern Ireland plants.
        The French have snared Germany as their ‘plus one’ on a new military fast jet design but Italians are looking to UK as is Sweden.
        Airbus wing design and manufacture is still centered in Britain and would remain.
        EU is still dependent on UK fish …chuckle

        • Winds of change are blowing.
          Although the article doesn’t mention wings, one can very much imagine that they’ll also (discretely) be part of the shift. After all, the EU and UK are growing further apart every day, so it’s natural to reduce remaining inter-dependencies.

          As regards fish: I feel sorry for the Scottish fishermen, whose shellfish is rotting on harbor walls because Boris removed their fast routes to EU tables. Restaurants in the EU are now buying Irish and Spanish shellfish instead.

          • Referendum!, Referendum!, Bum, Bum, REFERENDUM!!

            Brexit has released massive dissolution forces for GB.

          • They have existed under the EU, remember the Scots had their own referendum *before* the EU one
            Ask the Spanish about ‘dissolution’ or down the Balkans way… then there is Belgium itself which could split 3 ways and France’s many separatist movements now they have regional governments..chuckle

          • @ Uwe
            You’ll probably have read that, in the new consolidation of Airbus aerostructure manufacturing in the EU, the wing plant in Bremen is maintaining its status — and it’s probably only a matter of time before an expansion there is announced. The Bremen plant manufactures wing components (such as flaps), and fits electrical and hydraulic systems to naked wings arriving from the UK. There’s an obvious incentive to Airbus to de-centralize its wing activities out of the politically unstable UK.

      • Yes, the Safran demo has benn running but it is a mix of a M88 core and demo hardware from EU engine manufacturers. They will need a large boost of money to develop a new core and a production standard UDF system certified for 30 000 cycles that is cost competetive. I think GE involvement is needed using GE technology and materials developed and tested since the 1990’s. I belive it needs Boeing interest in the same core engine before GE starts moving and apply export licences for that technology to ship core engines to France (the generation after GE9X). As Bjorn mentions the US will get moving with Goverment money, most likely to Boeing for a new narrowbody that will need a new engine. We will see what RR can do with EU money to Germany to convert the Pearl engine to an UDF. “Gentlemen start your engines…”

    • I think eventually some nations will develop SMR (Small Modular Reactors) or Thorium/U232 Molten Salt Breeder Reactors which over come issues with the previous technology and those countries will experience considerably greater wealth than those relying on wind, solar and expensive storage technologies. Supplies of thorium are virtually unlimited, say 40,000 years.

      • That would be a logical and rational technology to deploy, and would appeal to network managers, who dread the concept of a windstill night.

        However, the environmental discussion tends to be hijacked by irrational, idealist activists, who are de facto vehemently opposed to nuclear power…though most of them couldn’t even begin to formulate any form of cogent argument to support their stance.

        • “.. However, the environmental discussion tends to be hijacked …”

          Any discussion towards some constructive move into a sane energy generation framework gets hijacked …

          I do wonder who steers these people from the back.
          ( The “color revolutions” are all examples of “orchestrated from outside” popular movements.
          The moment they have achieved destruction they founder from loss of interest.)

          • They founder from loss of funding once their goals are achieved. Community organisers are paid and their legal costs are covered. They are organised and educated in mass influence and media techniques.

          • They founder from loss of interest by the “leaders from behind”. Loss of funds is fallout.
            And it is about the most insidious tactic applied by American interests to destruct foreign cilization. Abomination!

      • There are neither SMRs nor thorium fuelled power plants in economical existence, stop dreaming.

        • The 2020 edition of the biennial IAEA booklet Advances in Small Modular Reactor Technology Developments, published last month, provides the latest data and information on SMRs around the world, including detailed descriptions of 72 reactors under development or construction in 18 countries.

          China has a molten salt Breeder Reactor program. They mean to master and control the technology ahead of an other nation. They openly talk of Direct Air Capture and production of carbon fibres and materials using the immense cheap power it would provide.

          Molten Salt U233/Thorium Breeder Reactors were developed in the USA for power generation and because the molten salt provided an easy way of waste reprocessing and transmutation (destruction) of long term waste but the technology was dropped. The technology was dropped due to its lack of suitability in powering submarines. Phyicists wanting to develop power reactors had already worked out the need for easy waste reprocessing and Breeding. The worlds first nuclear power reator, Shippingport, initially ran on a U233 cycle.

          Molten Salt Reactors are very safe since a leakage of the molten fissile material merely leads to leakage to a vessel below the reactor where there is no moderator or configured moderator and the reaction stops. The vessel also conducts out heat.

  2. They don’t mean it. In my youth I used to drive around in cars like the Renault 4 and mini that weighed 650 kg and had 34hp when new. Nowadays the average weight of a car in the US is 1857kg and there are loads of 400hp 2-3 ton SUVs.
    Average MPG has actually been getting worse as politicians have been setting ever more “Zero emissions” targets. Overall emissions are no better for electric cars and all this weight produces a lot of harmful particulates from the brakes and tyres.
    The aviation industry actually cares more than governments, because they care about weight.

      • China does it the right way.
        Push for EVs independent of the current grid power mix ( and attached pollution.)
        With an established wide EV base power generation can be improved over time _without destroying citizen investment in mobility.

    • The cost savings of technological advances in cheaper automated assembly, cheaper materials better engines, transmission, electronics, materials and aerodynamics have been used by consumers primarily to increase comfort luxury, safety and space rather than economy. Clearly this tragedy of the commons cant really go on. My wife’s Toyota Yaris hybrid gets 3.1L/100km and I can get to work in my 1 hour commute with 1L/day. Less than 14kWhr if made as a PtL syn fuel. I would expect this vehicle to be suitable for all but even if scaled up 50% its adequate for all.

      • Yes, that’s my point! If they can’t even be bothered to do anything about this gratuitous CO2 production, why are they bothering the aviation industry?
        Even my medium sized van weighs a ton less than a range rover. 60-70 % of harmful particulates produced by a car come from brakes, tyres and the road surface. This is obviously directly related to weight and not helped by lugging heavy batteries around.

        • We have a long way to go. Although politics forces us to put effort into ‘decarbonising’ aviation when other when the technology to decarbonise ground handling equipment such as aircraft tractors, busses and various service vehicles has not even been deployed or developed let alone the trucks that deliver cargo.

    • Yes, lots of +2 ton cars to take one person to work and home again when physics gives that a 20lb carbon bike with high speed brakes, bearings and tyres could do the job at the same average speed on purpose build tracks (like in Lexan tunnels with dry and conditioned air blowing in your tunnel at 12-17 m/s).

  3. The US is only interested in Power Play.

    “Landing on the Moon” was a pissing contest.
    Interest veined after that was “won”.

    Climate will be the same.
    US is suddenly going for asserting leadership
    because that is the next domain of power play.
    There is no intrinsic interest in climate things.

    A sad thing the Soviet Union foundered.
    They were less domination and profits driven.

    i.e. my expectations are that US in the lead on climate
    will pervert any sensible movement made while the US was “away”.

    • I agree with you.
      And I think that the US is also using this to try to finger-point at China, which it accuses of being the world’s biggest polluter. China retorts masterfully by pointing out that:
      – When considered on a per-capita basis, the US is the world’s biggest polluter.
      – When considered from the point of view of cumulative emissions to date, the US is once again the world’s biggest polluter.
      – When you consider that off-shoring to China from the US and EU has made China “the worlds factory”, what’s effectively happening is that the US and EU are “out-sourcing” their emissions problem to China.

      • anyway:

        Emissions count for the enduser/consumer.
        Think in VAT terms!

        Large part of Chinese emissions are linked to products consumed in the US.
        i.e. the US still is the largest by far polluter even if they outsourced the manufacturing process.
        .. and just for heating lawyer offices the local pollution is absurdly high. 🙂

  4. First: it’s absolutely great that the issue of atmospheric carbon (CO2 and methane) is getting increasing attention from administrations.

    Second: I wonder how many participants in Biden’s teleconference are aware of the fact that reducing greenhouse emissions is going to have zero effect on TODAY’s climate problem — it will only affect the INCREASE of the climate problem years down the road. In order to reduce TODAY’s climate problem, you have to actively remove carbon already present in the atmosphere. Trees don’t do this quickly enough. Is anyone asking whether it would be more efficient to spend dollars on industrial carbon capture rather than on emissions reduction? I shudder when I hear the phrase “The scientists say…”, because you then have to ask which scientists are saying that…and which are saying something different. The world’s reaction to the CoViD epidemic has shown that there’s no such thing as “consensus” in science.

    Apart from that, does anyone really believe that the US can halve its carbon emissions in less than 10 years? Particularly when it’s about to embark on a massive infrastructure upgrade (concrete/steel manufacture produces vast quantities of CO2)?

    • Some effects are easy to calculate like replacing coal burning C+O2 ->CO2 to natural gas (methane) CH4+2O2 -> CO2 +2H2O quickly. Limit concrete construction to where it cannot be replaced with wood. The limits for wooden buildings is increasing pretty quick and they are around 50 stories right now. I think the 1,000ft London Oakwood Tower might be a stretch too far at the moment but with modern scanning of defects, adhesives and FEM codes it can be done within a few years.

      • 50 stories for wooden skyscrapers ?
        More like 10
        The tallest so far at 18 stories is really a hybrid of wood, concrete and steel, so no cigar. For obvious reasons all wood is much lower.

          • Hybrid again.

            “The decks on the floors two to 11 are made of prefabricated wood components, while the decks on the next seven floors are built using 300mm concrete to improve the strength of the building.”
            Improve the strength…..who would have thought, what they really mean it sways too much without it.
            Steel used as well. and sounds like the 50m piles will be concrete as well.
            The Vancouver one has been declared a heretic as it has a concrete lift core and stairs
            Wood is only suitable for low rise say less than 12 stories

          • The limit is creepimg up. we will see what get funded and certified for offices, hotels and flats. Most wooden contries have their wooden building projects, Sweden 20 stories in Sara Kulturhus, Norway Mjösa Tower 18-floor building, Finland Lighthouse Joensuu building 50m 14 stories, Austria 84-meter, 24-storey high ‘HoHo Tower’ , Switzerland Wolkenwerk superstructure 22-stories 70-meter, Canada 40-storey Earth Tower, Vancouver (not built yet), USA Ascent, a 25-storey mass timber building, is underway in downtown Milwaukee. Japan Sumitomo Forestry is proposing the 70-storey hybrid timber skyscraper to mark the company’s 350th anniversary in 2041. The Spruce goose is the biggest wooden plane and I think de Havilland Mosquito is one of the fastest maily wooden aircrafts together with Geman rocket plane Me163

          • Wood is a wonderful material. One can make a 16,000 ton windjammer ship, an graceful aircraft, a skyscraper, an automobile, furniture, a wharf, pier or railway bridge. However I googled plenty of historical studies of how European shipbuilding helped deforest the world. The Royal Navy itself was a significant stress. I can’t see wooden skyscrapers a solution except in a few countries (Nordic, Canada). Wind turbine powered Direct Air Capture would produce vastly more plastic building material for the same land area.

    • Direct Air Capture of CO2 or Carbon Capture of CO2 from Sea Water can not only provide PtL Power to Liquids Synfuel but there are already plans that a portion of the hydrocarbons produced could be converted into carbon fibre and plastics. Perhaps in the future plastic shopping bags can be used to sequester CO2 and political activists funded by big synoil shall shame those reusing shopping bags.

  5. The question has never been of technologies’ availability given that Kelly Johnson under his Skunk Works had been pursuing plans to develop a liquid hydrogen powered supersonic spy plane for the USAF way back in the late 1950s as a successor to his U2. The plane was to fly at Mach 2+ at 100,000 feet and was going to be almost twice the size of B-52. However, range limitations (at 2500 nmi) for its primary objective & mission of overflying Soviet Union coupled with inability to refuel the airplane mid-air led him to look for conventional engines instead. Similarly, battery powered electric trucks were produced even in the first half of the 20th century as well (walker electric trucks) but could never replace the gas guzzlers. It has always been about the context and the market forces on the demand side which have determined the fate of technologies based on business case. If climate change is accorded atleast the same priority as the cold war rivalry between the superpowers to outdo one another for decades, which led to a quantum leap in technology evolution, the world would be a much better place by the middle of the present century…

    Author: Airbus vs. Boeing: Strategy Perspective – Part 1 & 2

  6. What does this mean for air transport?
    It means going the pathway of lowest hanging fruit – Sustainable Aviation Fuels with technologies of today – not in five years or tomorrow.
    [Green H2 + Direct Air Capture] → [Fischer Tropsch] → [Synfuels]
    Even the first scale-up giga project of [H2 + DAC] will produce SAF of less than €400/t (production cost). That would be more expensive in the beginning, following price reduction with further scale-ups. It might not be an ideal solution but good enough until better technologies (fuels) settle.

    • I suspect one reason for Europe’s interest in hydrogen for aviation is that if mastered it not only addresses CO2 emissions can also provide tariff like barriers under the guise of CO2 reduction. This document:

      describes the growing public support in Sweden for aggressive taxes on aviation carbon. If airbus can produce a 2000nm hydrogen airliner it is easy to see the EU supporting such taxes across the board with a disproportionate impact on Boeing and Embraer. It will be difficult for the US to argue against such a tax under WTO rules.

  7. But the moon landings while inappropriate spending were positive, whereas ‘sustainability’ is anti-human.

    It is based on the lie of fixed-pie economics and drive-to-the-bottom ethics, which come from denial of the effectiveness of the human mind – a path from Plato through Kant and Marx. In contrast, Aristotle taught that humans can understand the world, then Ayn Rand explained how ethical behaviour is integral to human success and pointed out that humans collaborate and take care of the environment they own.

    ‘Sustainability’ types want to deprive poor people of affordable portable energy, thus diminish their lives. That is not moral.

    • The moon landings were superb and I loved them. They unified humanity and gave new technology. Like a huge statue of liberty or a Cathedral built over century they showed us what we could do. Werner von Braun as a 19 year old swore he would dedicate his life to space flight and he set his goal to landing on the moon. Many felt like him. Had von Braun’s ideas been followed we would have had Space-X type fly back boosters 40 years earlier and telecommunications in the world would be decades ahead. We’d be on mars. I do not think there was an opportunity cost. Poverty elimination is often a money pit of poor outcomes that enables and increase low behaviour. Give it to the rocket scientists and ballerinas to inspire. I also don’t think we would have had other technological improvements. The ‘moon shots’ made us try and made us stretch ourselves. But for it we would have sat around doing nothing much special.

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