Airbus could launch a commercial airliner running on green hydrogen produced from wind and solar by the early 2030s, said a senior executive from the global aerospace group.

Tapping renewable hydrogen for aircraft propulsion is “one of the most promising” routes for the aviation sector to meet its zero-emissions goals, said Glenn Llewellyn, vice president, zero emissions technology, at Airbus.

Llewellyn predicted that hydrogen has a “very attractive” outlook for powering aircraft up to 200 passengers, with potential application through combustion in engines, or in fuel-cell technologies that produce electric power.

“We have the ambition to bring a zero-emission commercial airliner to market in the early 2030s,” Llewellyn told a panel of the Farnborough International Airshow Connect online event.

“We believe we need to position the aviation industry to be powered by renewable energy. Hydrogen is a very good surrogate for allowing us to do that.

“It can be produced directly by solar and wind, and we can then carry that energy onboard, either in fuel cells or combustion in a gas turbine, or even a hybrid-electric combination of the two.”

The Airbus executive predicted both “raw” hydrogen and carbon-neutral sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which are produced using renewable feedstock as an alternative to conventional jet fuel, both have important parts to play in aviation’s push to zero-emissions, with the latter likely to remain the better option for larger aircraft making longer journeys until mid-century.

An EU-backed study into hydrogen-powered aviation recently predicted hydrogen propulsion via combustion or fuel-cells “has the potential to be a major part of the future propulsion technology mix” and could reduce climate impact of flights by as much as 90%, compared with a maximum 60% for SAFs.

Llewellyn said the aerospace industry and its suppliers face “significant decisions” in the middle of the current decade in terms of technology choices to decarbonise the sector, which currently faces massive commercial challenges from the Covid-19 epidemic.

Riona Armesmith, chief project engineer for hybrid-electric propulsion at aero-engine giant Rolls-Royce, confirmed it is looking at options for combusting hydrogen in engines as part of its work on future propulsion technologies.

Adapting aircraft to run on hydrogen would also require significant work on fuel storage and airframe designs compared to SAFs, which are more compatible with existing aircraft fuel-systems, the experts said.

Along with Boeing of the US, Europe-based Airbus is one of the big-two global commercial aircraft suppliers to airlines around the world.

A Recharge special report published earlier this year explained the multiple technology options being explored as the aviation sector seeks to decarbonise. They include and EU-backed project called ENABLEH2 – in which Airbus and Rolls-Royce are both among the partners – that’s looking at the use of liquid hydrogen (LH2 ) as an aviation fuel, with a view to providing “comprehensive roadmaps for the introduction of LH2 for civil aviation”.

Aviation and the wider transport industry is just one of the global industrial sectors looking at green H2 as a route to decarbonisation where direct electrification is impractical, prompting forecasts of a surge in demand for generation capacity to produce it by mid-century.