So called "renewable energy" is a buzzword these days. Auto manufacturers are starting to roll out hydrogen powered cars. Hydrogen may not currently be the most efficient or economic fuel for jet engines, but that doesn't mean there are companies working on this issue or even a new kind of engine.

Are there any such programs in existence today?

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    $\begingroup$ It should be noted that hydrogen isn't actually a "renewable energy" source at all. In fact, it's not usually even an energy source in the first place. It's usually an energy storage mechanism for energy produced from some other source (usually the electric grid, which means mostly coal.) Much like a battery, just a lot harder to contain but with less harmful waste products. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 12 '15 at 5:14
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab - By that logic, the only true energy source is the sun. With the exceptions of nuclear and geothermal (both caused by radioactive decay of heavy elements, and thus given to us by some other star) and maybe tidal harnesses (caused primarily by the moon's gravitational pull on the oceans, but that still requires liquid water and thus a heat source), all the "energy sources" we currently have, we have because that source captured and stored the sun's energy (the water cycle for hydroelectric, photosynthetic reactions for most fossil fuels). $\endgroup$ – KeithS Aug 12 '15 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithS The difference is that all of those things are done by nature, whereas Hydrogen has to be created anthropogenically using energy from one of those other sources. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 12 '15 at 17:55

Aviation is very energy-hungry. While hydrogen is quite efficient in terms of energy per mass (141.8 MJ/kg), it is awful in terms of energy per volume. Aircraft today use their wings for fuel storage, which helps to reduce bending loads and uses a volume unsuitable to transport payload. This will not work for hydrogen.

The biggest problem is storage, and none of the solutions is really attractive:

  • Cryogenic: Storing the hydrogen at a temperature where it is liquid (below 20°K) greatly reduces volume demands, but now you need to add insulation, and even then the energy per volume is only a quarter compared to hydrocarbons. This is used in rockets, because they can rely on extensive ground support before launch and use up the stuff in a few minutes. Airliners, however, need to store their fuel over tens of hours, so their hydrogen tanks will be much heavier and bulkier than those of rockets.
  • Compressed: This avoids the energy input for liquefaction, but now you need a strong and heavy pressure vessel. Current gaseous hydrogen storage uses up to 700 bar pressure, but even then the volume demand is six times higher than that of kerosene for the same energy content.
  • Hydrides: Some metals like magnesium or sodium can bind hydrogen and release it when heated. However, even in the most efficient compounds like sodium tetrahydroaluminate, only 7.4% of mass is useable hydrogen, making this exquisitely unsuitable for mass-critical applications like aviation.

Currently a mixture of cryogenic and compressed storage looks the most attractive and has been tested widely.

The first (partially) hydrogen powered aircraft was the LZ-127 Zeppelin which used a mixture of gasses of equal mass per volume as air (Blaugas) to power its engines.

Tupolev designed and flew the Tu-155, the first hydrogen-powered heavier-than-air aircraft, in 1988. The results showed that the principle worked, but could not compete with kerosene.

Currently, several demonstrators are in operation, but none with the hope of widespread application - as it stands, binding hydrogen chemically to carbon will still give the best way of storage (liquid and unpressurized) for aviation.

Hydrogen becomes the best source of energy only when combustion speed is critical, such as in supersonic combustion ramjets (scramjets).

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  • $\begingroup$ So, basically, it boils down to the fuel alone has a better energy/mass ratio, but the fuel + storage system for the fuel has a worse one (and/or requires more bulk which adds unacceptable amounts of form drag)? And this is all aside from added design complexity and the resulting increased chance of something going wrong, of course. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 12 '15 at 5:26
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    $\begingroup$ To add numbers, density of kerosene is ~800 kg/m³ while liquid hydrogen only has ~70 kg/m³ (compressed to 700 bar approaches that value), so 11.5 times higher volume is needed. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Aug 12 '15 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ do keep in mind that compression and liquification are effectively one and the same, the insulation and cooling requirements are thus very similar, as are the requirements on the pressure vessel. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jan 22 at 6:19
  • $\begingroup$ To add even more numbers: Compressed gaseous hydrogen has a density of only 40 kg/m³ at 700 bar. Compressing it from 350 to 700 bar raises density only by 67% since with increasing pressure it will behave less and less like an ideal gas. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jan 24 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ Another data point on the curve: the Saturn V's third stage used (liquid) hydrogen as a fuel, but by the time it ignited, the craft was no longer an aircraft. They'd hoped to use hydrogen for the second stage as well, but that would have been too tricky and expensive, even at that grand a scale. $\endgroup$ – Camille Goudeseune Jan 24 at 2:19

Airbus have claimed they aim to produce hydrogen-fuelled passenger planes that could be in service by 2035. They have developed three ZEROe concept designs.

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Unveiling its latest blueprints, Airbus said its turbofan design could carry up to 200 passengers more than 2,000 miles, while a turboprop concept would have a 50% lower capacity and range.

A third, "blended-wing body" aircraft was the most eye-catching of the three designs.

All three planes would be powered by gas-turbine engines modified to burn liquid hydrogen, and through hydrogen fuel cells to create electrical power.

However, Airbus admitted that for the idea to work, airports would have to invest large sums of money in refuelling infrastructure.

"The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem," said Mr Faury.

"Together with the support from government and industrial partners, we can rise up to this challenge to scale up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry."

The new Airbus designs are the fruit of a joint research project that Airbus launched with EasyJet last year to consider hybrid and electric aircraft.

The airline's chief executive, Johan Lundgren, said: "EasyJet remains absolutely committed to more sustainable flying and we know that technology is where the answer lies for the industry."

BBC News: 'Airbus looks to the future with hydrogen planes'

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