Hydrogen fuel could carve out a 32% share of the aviation market by 2050, but only if it enters the fray by 2035 — and it would require astonishing amounts of new renewable energy capacity, according to a new study by climate think-tank Energy Transition Commission (ETC).

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Enter the market as little as five years later, and hydrogen’s potential share of aviation sector energy demand drops to 13%, muscled aside by an even more rapid take-up of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) such as biofuels, or synthetic fuels made from electricity, also known as e-fuels, says the report, Making Net Zero Aviation Possible.

In any scenario, SAFs will take the lion’s share of the aviation market, the ETC says, taking 65%-85% depending on how quickly other viable fuels become commercially available.

SAFs are the popular decarbonisation choice for airlines because they are so-called “drop-in fuels”, meaning that they can be burnt in an existing aircraft engine with little need to upgrade, prolonging the longevity of their existing assets. They are also energy dense, so can fuel long-haul flights.


E-fuels, a type of SAF, could also contribute to hydrogen demand. Also known as power-to-liquids technology, e-fuels are made by mixing green hydrogen with captured carbon to produce a compound similar to the fossil kerosene, Jet A-1, that currently dominates the aviation fuel market.

In ETC’s hydrogen-heavy scenario, H2-derived SAFs and liquid hydrogen for aviation could push green hydrogen demand for aviation to five to nine million tonnes by 2030 — 10% of all H2 demand by that point. By 2050, this could reach 160 million tonnes.

But this would require an astronomic ramp up of renewable energy generation — 250-450TWh more of it by 2030. To illustrate the scale of this challenge, 450TWh is more than the entire 2021 renewable energy generation of Spain, Germany and the UK combined.

And 160 million tonnes of demand by 2050 would require 2TW of electrolyser capacity and 4TW of extra renewables capacity — more than double the entire global installed capacity of wind and solar in 2021.

Hydrogen’s market share in aviation is also dependent on how aircraft design evolves to accommodate decarbonised fuels, the ETC adds.

Current aircraft design limits the use of hydrogen to flights travelling around 2,500km, as hydrogen is less energy dense by volume than fossil jet fuel. But a re-design of airframes to accommodate the storage requirements of H2, and innovation in storage technology could “unlock longer ranges without reducing the number of available seats,” the think-tank says — potentially widening the use of hydrogen-powered aircraft.

Airbus, for instance, has committed to launching at least one zero-emission commercial hydrogen plane by 2035.

Demand is also increasing for the conversion of small regional aircraft to run on green hydrogen. This week, Canadian aircraft operator Avmax Aircraft Leasing placed a firm order with Californian aircraft engineer Universal Hydrogen, to convert 20 of its turboprop planes, which fly regional routes within Canada.

Emissions from aviation account for 2% of the global total, but are among some of the most difficult to decarbonise. The airline industry has promised to reduce emissions by 50% on 2005 levels by 2050, but so far its plan is heavily dependent on carbon offsets and fuel efficiency innovation. Only 20.3% of its proposed emissions cuts will come from using sustainable aviation fuels.

Even so, this week the UK government released its so-called “Jet Zero” strategy, in which it outlined plans to introduce a mandatory 10% mix of SAFs in aircraft fuel by 2030 — a plan that was described as “outrageous greenwash” by prominent UK Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas.