By Tim Hepher
TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) -Airbus has started developing fuel-cell engine technology, it said on Wednesday as it reaffirmed plans to introduce a hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035.
The system is one of several options being considered for a potential zero-emission aircraft based on hydrogen, an effective and clean carrier of energy, Airbus said.
It is the first time the world's largest planemaker has branched out into developing engine-related technology, but zero-emission project head Glenn Llewellyn said it would not necessarily go it alone if the system ended up being deployed.
Hydrogen flight is one of several potential developments being explored as aviation faces a daunting task of reaching net-zero emission targets by 2050, though there are big transatlantic differences over the path to curbing emissions.
Jet engine makers Rolls-Royce, General Electric, Safran and Pratt & Whitney are among its biggest suppliers.
Although Airbus once briefly considered buying Britain's Rolls-Royce over a decade ago, planemakers have historically shied away from competing with engine makers whose powerplants fly on multiple platforms to recoup huge development costs.
But the increasingly integrated nature of possible future plane designs, which may involve different configurations than in the past, has increased the opportunity for overlap.
Experts said Airbus was likely to partner with an engine maker if the project comes to fruition, with Airbus focusing on the fuel cell and the engine industry focusing on their core activity of managing power for flight.
Airbus has already partnered with GE/Safran joint-venture CFM International to test an engine fuelled directly by hydrogen.
Hydrogen can be combusted in an engine directly like other fuels, but without creating carbon emissions, or used to create electricity via a fuel cell to drive an electric engine.
The need for large and heavy tanks for the hydrogen fuel and new global infrastructure are among the hurdles.
Airbus said it was looking at both concepts as well as joining forces with carmaker Renault to study hybrid-electric technology that is also of interest for aviation.
Rival Boeing has voiced scepticism about the commercial feasibility of hydrogen in aviation. But Airbus said it was pushing ahead with its goal, which has drawn political support in Europe, including some green funding.
"All of us are dead-set on making zero-emission aircraft a reality," Llewellyn told the Airbus Summit, a two-day event designed to showcase the company's sustainability activities.
Environmental groups say the aviation industry is not doing enough and ignoring a need to fly less to fight climate change.
Airbus made a series of announcements including a preliminary agreement with Finnish biofuel producer Neste to promote use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, which most experts say represents the most promising path to curbing emissions in the near term. They gave no financial details.
Airbus is aiming for a 100-seater "zero-E" plane, sitting below its current portfolio starting at 110 seats, and has said it is looking at various shapes and designs for propulsion.
But it ruled out pressing ahead with a distinctive blended-wing-body shape which has featured in earlier presentations alongside a conventional "tube and wing" shape or a turboprop.
Airbus will start ground and flight testing fuel-cell architecture towards the middle of the decade.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Jane Merriman)