Aerospace engineer Phil Ansell from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has illuminated the path to sustainable aviation using green hydrogen. His research, presented at AIAA Aviation 2023, reveals that for hydrogen to be a viable zero-emission solution for aviation, it hinges on a fully renewable electrical grid in the U.S. by 2035.
Hydrogen’s Aviation Appeal
Hydrogen, with its potential to emit only water vapor when used in aircraft, is a tantalizing prospect for the aviation industry’s quest for sustainability. However, Ansell’s research emphasizes that evaluating hydrogen’s environmental impact requires a comprehensive view of its entire lifecycle, not just its emissions during flight.
The Crucial Grid Transition
Ansell’s study delves into the transformative power of a fully renewable electrical grid. He analyzed various forecasts for the future composition of the U.S. power grid, focusing on scenarios that emphasize solar, wind, and other renewable sources. His findings underscore that without a swift transition to a fully renewable grid by 2035, electrolytic hydrogen won’t achieve environmental sustainability.
The Land and Transportation Equation
One critical aspect Ansell considered was the land required to produce renewable electricity for hydrogen production. This could involve vast solar arrays, wind turbines, or repurposing outdated energy facilities. Moreover, he scrutinized the logistics of transporting hydrogen, whether through pipelines, heavy trucks, or on-site liquefaction.
Choosing O’Hare International Airport as the case study location was strategic. Its proximity to Lake Michigan, a substantial freshwater source, enhances its suitability for hydrogen production.
The Potential for Green Hydrogen Aviation
Ansell’s research aligns with the growing interest in developing hydrogen-powered aircraft. Small commercial hydrogen planes could emerge within two years, with larger ventures aiming for a 10-year timeline. The key question is readiness from a lifecycle perspective, and Ansell asserts that the necessary technologies and resources are available—it’s a matter of allocation and prioritization.