British low-cost airline carrier EasyJet has detailed an innovative plan to build an eco-friendly hybrid airplane fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell.
Still at the embryonic stage of development, the hybrid drivetrain is built around hydrogen fuel cells located in the cargo hold. A regenerative braking system similar in concept to the one found in many hybrid and electric cars harvests the massive amount of kinetic energy generated when the plane brakes during landing and channels it to the cells. Once the aircraft comes to a full stop, the cells transfer the energy to lightweight battery packs used to power electric motors built into the wheels the next time the plane taxis.
Ian Davies, the head of EasyJet’s engineering department, points out that four percent of the fuel used during a flight is burned during taxiing. EasyJet flights taxi for 20 minutes on average, which represents roughly four million miles a year. Consequently, fitting the hydrogen-hybrid system to every plane in the carrier’s fleet can potentially save up to 50,000 tons of CO2 annually. EasyJet would be able to substantially trim its fuel budget, a move that could reduce the cost of flying for passengers.
The technology can be retro-fitted to existing airplanes without making major modifications to the fuselage. Additionally, it’s easier to implement for a budget carrier like EasyJet than it would be for bigger companies such as Delta Airlines and Air France.
“Because of the fact we’re a low-cost carrier, most people take hand luggage and our hulls are empty, so we have the space to do it,” explained Davies in an interview with CNN.
The hydrogen system has other, more unexpected advantages. For starters, the water vapor emitted by the hydrogen fuel cell can be used to fill the plane’s water system. Airports will be markedly quieter, and supertugs will become a thing of the past because the hydrogen-hybrid plane can drive to and from a gate under its own power.
EasyJet expects to begin testing its hydrogen technology before the end of the year, but passengers won’t ride in a hydrogen-powered plane for another few years. If everything goes according to plan, the pilot program will last anywhere between three and five years and the technology will trickle down to a production plane “in the next five to 15 years,” according to Davies.