Berlin air show ILA showcases latest H2 projects

Currently, SAF is the number one topic when it comes to sustainability and the path to net zero in 2050, propagated by IATA and others. During the upcoming ILA in Berlin (05-09JUN24), the role of hydrogen in aviation will play a similarly prominent role. Numerous companies have booked stands in Hall 6, to showcase their latest developments and products. Is this strong focus on newest H2 developments a flash in the pan or rather a strong sign of a shift towards gaseous aviation fuels? CargoForwarder Global (CFG) put this and other questions about aviation and hydrogen to H2-expert, Hugo Duchemin (HD). He heads the French company COMWORXX.

Hugo Duchemin is one of the leading experts when it comes to the use of hydrogen in aviation –  photo: courtesy HD

CFG: Hugo, COMWORXX coordinates the activities of airlines and airports with the aim of achieving climate neutrality. Is the 2050 net zero target, propagated by IATA and the aviation industry as a whole, achievable at all or is it more of a sedative pill for the critical public?

HD: Since 2019, COMWORXX facilitates projects in aviation and aerospace between France and Germany as main partners, but also involving more European countries. As start-up members of Berlin-Brandenburg Aerospace Allianz (BBAA), we immediately engaged in promoting the reality of emission-reduced aviation, and thereby fighting any attempt of greenwashing that can still be observed as a counterproductive stream in the world of aviation, as in transportation and industry in general. We believe that the ambitious targets of IATA, EU and others can force the world to speed up the process. At the last ILA, with a law professor from Toulouse, we presented how governments and companies had been trialed in court for failing to meet environmental targets, and in parallel how these targets can be tackled by creating suitable infrastructures. But the bottom line is that all those involved in aviation, including their associations and political decision-makers, must do more to achieve the net zero target come 2050, or at least get very close to it.

Strong focus on H2

CFG: At the upcoming Berlin-held air show, ILA, a large number of companies involved in hydrogen projects have booked stands. What innovations in this sector will be presented to experts and the interested public at the fair?

HD: The airport infrastructure innovations presented in 2022 by the team Berlin-Toulouse (BBAA & Aerospace Valley), raised interest from two more European regions which then became partners: Northern Norway (Bodø Airport) and the Dutch province, Flevoland (Lelystad Airport). We recently signed an LOI for the implementation of a reality project that can be summarized like this: 4 airports in 4 countries will produce renewable energy and green hydrogen for ground and air usage, including SAF production via the Fischer-Tropsch process. We are closely following up with the creation of international standards for the storage and distribution of hydrogen, which will ultimately allow first pilot routes of hydrogen-propelled aircraft within an adapted European Green Airport Network. This and other H2 projects will be presented, illustrated, and explained to interested visitors at the upcoming ILA show.

Huge ramp-up in green H2 is needed

CFG: Is this strong industry presence a sign of a reorientation, playing increasing attention to hydrogen-powered means of transportation?

HD: Green hydrogen is not easy to produce because it requires the generation of additional renewable energy that needs to be built up. But experts generally agree that green hydrogen production is the key to Sustainable Aviation Fuel, along with related processes. Hydrogen Europe as the largest organization in this part of the world, drives political, industrial, and commercial development, knowing that environmental targets can only be reached by a huge ramp-up in green hydrogen production. Global consumption of hydrogen, practically all produced on fossil fuel basis (known as ‘grey’ hydrogen), has reached 90 million tons. It takes a global effort to convert that volume into green hydrogen, and that is not even counting the new uses of hydrogen in aviation, road, rail, and water mobility. Energy efficiency has to be significantly increased, and international research cooperation with advanced hydrogen tech countries, e.g. Japan, will contribute to the ramp-up. India is proving a concept of ‘solar airports’ as seen in Cochin (State of Kerala), presented as a role model at ILA Berlin in 2022.

Sector coupling

CFG: What is the sequence: a) first hydrogen aircraft followed by a hydrogen ground infrastructure, b) both in parallel, or c) first the installation of hydrogen refueling stations at airports as a prerequisite for regular air traffic based on H2?

HD: All three in parallel. We cannot afford to waste time discussing chicken/egg types of excuses. Of course, the support of EU and national policy makers is needed, as shown by the example of Switzerland. There, large supermarket chains joined forces to establish a network of hydrogen refueling stations and corresponding truck fleets. Our strategy is based on sector-coupling. The offtake by trucks and other ground transport usage will grant the viability of hydrogen hubs at or near airports. Filling stations and FCEV fleets will grow in parallel, while hydrogen aircraft will increase in maturity.

SMEs drive innovations

CFG: Airbus announced plans to put a hydrogen-powered aircraft into service in 2035. But isn’t the development rather driven by smaller companies, so aren’t niche players the real trailblazers?

HD: Of course they are! We are proud to have APUS Zero Emissions as an H2 fuel cell aircraft manufacturing pioneer among us in Berlin. In Toulouse, they are closely followed by Blue Spirit Aero and Beyond Aero, the latter having recently performed their H2 ULM maiden flight. APUS will soon launch theirs, with a 4-seater that will have an 800 km reach. These aircraft will also be built as sustainable and express cargo versions. Airbus watches closely how their smaller counterparts are developing, following the principle that reality is always the most revealing testbed, even on a smaller scale. Likewise, BER International Airport presented with us at ILA 2022, stating that our teamwork allows conclusions for their own upscaling in SAF distribution, based on real life experience at Berlin’s regional airports.

CFG: Experience has shown that many young people visit the ILA events to find out about career opportunities. This brings up the question about job prospects in the field of hydrogen and aviation. 

HD: Career opportunities in this field are profoundly underestimated. Not only do we need to direct aerospace job seekers into the hydrogen technologies, but also attract young people to technical fields altogether, by showing that they are relentlessly getting ‘sexier’ in their innovative power, based on new technologies. Gender equality has to be promoted within the same strategy. With the authors of the book Hydrogen Horizons, we recently introduced the ‘Hydrogen Game’, a quiz that was tested by 50 experts at an event in Brussels, and which will be adapted to increase curiosity and playfully spread hydrogen knowledge in companies, universities, and schools. Progress needs collective effort, and we want to motivate that effort.

CFG: Hugo, thank you for your time and input.

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