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Hydrogen used to power passenger plane engine in world first by Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce - Steve M Smith/PA
Rolls-Royce - Steve M Smith/PA

Rolls-Royce and low-cost airline easyJet have tested what they say is the world’s first commercial airline engine powered by hydrogen fuel.

A Rolls-Royce AE 2100 turboprop engine, which is usually used on the C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft, was tested on a ground rig at the Ministry of Defence’s Boscombe Down airfield, a location long associated with aerospace research.

The successful test marks a milestone in moving global aviation towards greener fuels and away from kerosene. Advocates of the technology say it will help Britain meet a government target of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

Grazia Vittadini, Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer, said: “We are pushing the boundaries to discover the zero carbon possibilities of hydrogen, which could help reshape the future of flight.”

The engine tests are being financially supported by easyJet, which has made multi-million pound investments in experiments around future aero engine technologies.

Johan Lundgren, the budget airline’s chief executive, said: “We are committed to continuing to support this ground-breaking research because hydrogen offers great possibilities for a range of aircraft, including easyJet-sized aircraft.”

Rolls-Royce - Steve M Smith/PA
Rolls-Royce - Steve M Smith/PA

Hydrogen has traditionally been seen as an unattractive fuel for aviation thanks to its indelible link with the Hindenburg airship disaster of 1937. The flammable gas erupted in a fireball that killed 35 passengers and crew after a botched landing.

However, the fuel is now being revisited for aviation as the industry looks to cut down on its carbon emissions.

Experts have said that hydrogen-fuelled flights in the UK could become a reality as soon as 2030. Earlier this month The Telegraph revealed that organisations including Rolls-Royce, Cranfield University and GKN Aerospace were banding together to develop commercially viable hydrogen fuel technology under an aviation industry plan dubbed Project Napkin.

Fuel for the AE 2100 test was refined in Scotland by an Orkney Islands-based research project, the European Marine Energy Centre. Scientists there use wind and tide power to generate electricity needed to extract hydrogen from water. The fuel is then liquefied and stored at very low temperatures.

EasyJet partnered with Rolls-Royce on the hydrogen project in July. Scheduled future experiments include trying hydrogen in different engine types, including a Pearl 15 jet engine that could eventually be used for flight tests.

In September the British airline, founded by Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou in 1995, switched its research and development focus away from electric motors towards alternative fuels for existing jet engines.

A previous collaboration between Rolls-Royce and Airbus to test an electric motor in a converted BAe 146 regional airliner was cancelled, with both companies citing the impact of Covid-19. The aircraft was due to fly with its experimental Siemens electric motor in 2021.