Rolls-Royce has said it has run an aircraft engine on hydrogen in what is thought to be a world first for the aviation industry, which is considering using the fuel to decarbonise air travel.
The FTSE 100 engineering company said the ground test was a “major step towards proving that hydrogen could be a zero-carbon aviation fuel of the future”, in a joint project with the airline easyJet.
The test took place outdoors at Boscombe Down, a British military facility in Wiltshire. It used a converted Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A regional aircraft engine that is generally used to power turboprop planes. Turboprop engines are used to drive a propeller on slower-speed short-haul flights, rather than driving the fan required for faster speeds in jet engines. Building and maintaining jet engines is Rolls-Royce’s main business line.
Aviation faces one of the sternest tests of any industry to decarbonise as the world seeks to move to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic global heating of more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Alternative power sources already exist for most forms of transport, but the energy density requirements for planes have ruled out current battery technology for all but the shortest journeys.
The industry is toying with hydrogen – which produces only water when it burns – as a possible energy source for some flights, although many analysts have serious doubts over whether it could ever be viable for longer journeys. Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, has calculated that a Boeing 747 jumbo jet would require more than 1m litres of hydrogen to deliver the equivalent range of 250,000 litres of jet fuel.
Fuel tanks of that size – which would also have to be kept at high pressure – would probably require a complete redesign of the plane. Nevertheless, the plane manufacturers Airbus and Boeing, customers of Rolls-Royce, are making initial forays into developing hydrogen technology. In the shorter term they are hoping for so-called sustainable aviation fuel to decarbonise the industry.
Green hydrogen for the Rolls-Royce tests was supplied by the European Marine Energy Centre, generated using renewable energy at the centre’s hydrogen production and tidal test facility on Eday in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland.
Grazia Vittadini, the Rolls-Royce chief technology officer, said it was an “exciting milestone” and a “landmark achievement”.
“We are pushing the boundaries to discover the zero-carbon possibilities of hydrogen, which could help reshape the future of flight,” she said.
Grant Shapps, the UK business secretary, said in a statement: “The UK is leading the global shift to guilt-free flying, and today’s test by Rolls-Royce and easyJet is an exciting demonstration of how business innovation can transform the way we live our lives.”
Shapps said it was a “true British success story”, although he also incorrectly referred to hydrogen being used in a “jet engine” for the first time.