I think that hydrogen is among the best fuels for use in supersonic and hypersonic flight, is there any work on improving fuel tanks so they could store hydrogen?

What would be the best state to store hydrogen for use as an aircraft fuel: solid, liquid or gas?

What are the complexities for storing it at each state?


4 Answers 4


First, to debunk a myth regarding the Hindenberg, which always gets brought up whenever hydrogen is mentioned. Hydrogen is less safe than liquid fuel, but it is not less safe than natural gas or propane. Hydrogen has a higher flame propagation velocity than hydrocarbon gasses, but contains much less energy per unit volume than hydrocarbon gasses. A huge airship filled with natural gas would be just as hazardous as a huge airship filled with hydrogen, yet we have natural gas pipework running to our houses and with proper controls there are very few incidents.

Nevertheless, hydrogen is not a good fuel for aircraft for the following reasons.

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(Source: Wikipedia)

Above shows that hydrogen contains about 142MJ/kg of energy compared with about 42MJ/kg for kerosene. However it contains a lot less energy per unit volume. Liquid hydrogen contains only 10 MJ/litre while kerosene contains 33MJ/litre. Therefore hydrogen fuel tanks would need to be more than 3 times the size of kerosene fuel tanks. Gaseous hydrogen at atmospheric pressure would occupy hundreds of times more space, while hydrogen at 700bar is only about a factor of 2 worse than liquid hydrogen, but the weight of a vessel for holding 700bar pressure would negate the weight advantage of hydrogen.

Therefore the most practical way of storing hydrogen in an aircraft would be in the liquid state, as is used in spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle. Use of hydrogen would result in some weight savings and hence fuel savings. However the fuel tanks would be so big that the savings would be partially negated by the the additional drag (not to mention the additional weight of the larger tanks.)

Hydrogen is expensive to produce and liquefy. Most hydrogen is produced by reforming natural gas and steam into hydrogen by the reaction CH4 + 2H2O = CO2 + 4H2, which is a highly energy intensive process. Therefore, although a hydrogen fuelled plane might consume less energy than a kerosene fuelled plane, this does not take into account the energy used in the process of producing and liquefying the hydrogen, nor the cost involved in doing so. Overall, hydrogen fuel is likely to be more expensive.

Hydrogen is also more difficult to handle. hydrogen tanks are never perfectly insulated, so hydrogen boils off, and the tanks ice up. It is also, more hazardous than liquid fuel if a spill occurs, as it will evaporate and create an explosive mixture in air (though, as I have said above, this issue also applies to natural gas.) Liquid hydrogen is much colder than liquefied natural gas, and so creates more problems with materials, boiloff and icing.

Industrial gas turbines can run on hydrogen without too much modification. But with the extensive certification procedures for aviation, modifying an aircraft engine for hydrogen will be quite costly. Also the faster flame velocity of hydrogen means that NOx is more difficult to control and this is likely to cause problems with emissions regulations.

In conclusion, the only way hydrogen is ever going to be viable in the aviation industry in general is if it turns out to be easier to use in a fuel cell driven craft than a hydrocarbon fuel.

If economically feasible, a fuel cell / electric motor drive would be more efficient than a combustion jet engine. That said, the practical and safety issues mean that the aircraft industry will be one of the latest adopters of such technology.

  • $\begingroup$ Some proposed using electrolysis of water to convert surplus electricity (from the grid) into hydrogen. In this case, no need for natural gas. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ @RodrigodeAzevedo in principle yes, but in the current situation better to use the electricity to charge electric cars where battery weight is not an issue. Using electricity in cars is much easier than in planes. Hydrogen from electrolysis is more expensive than hydrogen from methane, but if and when fossil fuels are phased out, hydrogen from electrolysis using renewably generated electricity would make sense. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ The weight of a vessel for holding 700bar pressure would negate the weight advantage of hydrogen.: How much weight does a vessel add? Is it three, ten or rather thirty times the weight of the contained hydrogen? $\endgroup$
    – Gypaets
    Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Gypaets I hadn't worked it out but: according to Wikipedia there is an aluminium alloy called 2014-T6 with a yield strength of 414MPa, stronger than most steel. Assuming a safety factor of 1.5, a 1m radius cylindrical tank would need to be 70MPa/(414MPa/1.5)= 0.253m thick. Density of liquid hydrogen 70kg/m3, 700bar gaseous hydrogen is about half this according to chart above. Hydrogen mass per metre length= (PI*1*1)*35kg/m3=35kg. Aluminium mass per metre length (2*PI*0.253)*280kg/m3 = 445kg. So about 12.5 times. Obviously it depends a lot on the material, maybe carbon fibre will do better. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ "yet we have natural gas pipework running to our houses and with proper controls there are very few incidents." This isn't really a very good argument. Home rarely fly around at large fractions of Mach 1, nor do they frequently get into crash landings. Using a fuel that combusts more easily can dramatically lower survival rates. Consider runway excursion accidents and accidents like Asiana 214, for example. Accidents that were very survivable would have been much less survivable if the fuel had burned. Pretty much the only way to prevent that is to have a fuel (like Jet-A) that's hard to burn. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 7:54

In gaseous form, the amount of -- the mass of -- hydrogen you could store in the volume of aircraft fuel tanks would be negligible. In order to store enough mass of hydrogen, you'd have to store it liquified, which is how it's stored in rockets.

In order for that to be useful, though, you'd have to have engines entirely redesigned in order to burn cryogenic fuels, which would be a massive undertaking. I'm not aware of any serious interest in using cryogenic fuels in aircraft today. Kerosene works well and, compared to liquid hydrogen, is cheap and relatively safe to transport and store.

Rockets use cryogenic fuels because they absolutely need all of the "bang for the buck" that they can possibly get, so the high cost and extra safety measures are accepted in that realm as a necessary cost of doing business. This thread discusses rockets using cryogenic fuels or a mixture of cryogenic fuels and kerosene. The bottom line, they often use cryogenic fuels -- especially in upper stages -- in order to get more payload to orbit.

Unless something changes in the economics of kerosene vs cryogenic fuels, however, it seems improbable that aircraft will switch to liquid hydrogen on any great scale.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Farhan
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 16:45

Consider the nature of liquid hydrogen. In a liquid, non boiling state, it must be at a temperature of 22 Kelvin, which is -253C/-423F. Extremely cold. This calls for heavily insulated containers, and an accidental release could be extremely dangerous. A few gallons of liquid hydrogen spilled on you would turn you into an ice cube almost instantly.

It is true that when hydrogen is burned with oxygen, the result is water (plus a bit of ozone). However, when hydrogen is burned with atmospheric air, which is more nitrogen than oxygen, then some nasty oxides of nitrogen are also produced, so it is a 'clean' fuel only when it is provided with pure oxygen, or used in a fuel cell.

Today, liquid H is used as fuel in a few specialized situations that benefit from its high energy density: largely rockets, although it has also been used (combined with fuel cells) in some AIP submarines. These are areas where the additional complexity and expense are outweighed by the benefit.

In commercial use, it would be handled every day in high volume, so the complexities of dealing with this extremely cold substance would be magnified, as would the dangers of accidental release. And there is still the issue of the pollutants left over from burning hydrogen in the atmosphere.

In his book Skunk Works, Ben Rich describes an effort to retool the A-12 Oxcart aircraft (later to become the SR-71) to run on liquid hydrogen, to extend its range. He reported that by the time they had added the heavy insulated tanks, the range of the A-12 would have been extended only a couple of percent, plus the complexities of midair refueling, so Kelly Johnson killed the project and sent the project money back to the government. That was with 1960's technology, better methods may be available today, but that does illustrate how hydrogen as an aircraft fuel isn't quite the wonder solution it might seem to be.

On top of that, consider that free hydrogen doesn't exist on the earth in any great volume. It must be manufactured by electrolyzing water, which takes a lot of electricity, and that adds to the cost. Hydrogen can also be produced by catalyzing natural gas, although done in volume, there would be a lot of leftover chemicals to dispose of.

Should a practical fusion reactor be developed, then it is possible that hydrogen as a fuel for general transportation use would become viable. In aircraft, it could be utilized in fuel cells to power electric motors, to bypass the pollution issue.

  • $\begingroup$ 1) Nitrogen oxides is just by product of high pressure, temperature and lean combustion, and is not a direct consequence of certain kind of fuel. 2) Hydrogen is manufactured mostly chemically, e.g. hydrocarbons or carbon plus water. And what chemical leftovers? CO2? Hydrogen has been made in large scale for a hundred years already. 3) Fusion? Half a century into nuclear energy now only a few dozen ships in the world runs nuclear power, let alone controlled fusion itself is also half a century away. And how does that have anything to do with fuel cell? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 21:14

A hydrogen fuel tank, by nature, must be cylindrical. To save weight it must be short and stout, not long and narrow.

On an aircraft, it must also be at the center of gravity, so it does not throw the aircraft out of balance as fuel is spent. This also necessitates a short tank, not a long length-of-fuselage tank (all the hydrogen would roll fore or aft during maneuvering, crashing the aircraft).

Hydrogen is a very low density fuel, so the fuel tanks are enormous. The lion's share of the tank space used on the Shuttle main tank was for the hydrogen.

That means there is only one possible place for a hydrogen fuel tank on an aircraft: the center of the fuselage (typically over the wings). Pretty much the entire width of the fuselage. What's left for the passengers to sit in? The very front and rear fuselage. That means separate crews too - passing through the tank area would be impracticable, unless the aircraft had a "blister" up top like a 747.

This also defeats all the design efficiencies of carrying the fuel in the wings. That means the wings need to be stronger to carry the lift to where the fuel weight is. That matters.

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    $\begingroup$ It would seem that the more sensible approach would be two tanks at both ends of the fuselage. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters Hmm, but that puts the fuel mass at fore and aft extremes, which makes CG a huge issue that you have to manage very well, with good defense-in-depth and crews trained to manage it well. If bungled it crashes the plane. It also puts the fuel in the worst possible location structurally, having to carry structural support the farthest. At the wing root is bad enough - fuel really is best in the wings. (countless small tanks?) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ Hydrogen is pretty lightweight; the main issue with the tanks is their volume. You need big spherical tanks to reduce losses (square-cube law); putting many small tanks in the wings means that the surface area of the tanks is much bigger. As for wing lift, a lifting body approach might make sense. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 20:14

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