Airbus Launches Program to Probe Hydrogen Power Contrails

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In the next step of its ZEROe project to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035, Airbus launched at the Farnborough International Airshow on Wednesday the Blue Condor project, a flight test program to study the composition of contrails produced by a hydrogen combustion engine.

Though hydrogen emits no CO2 when burned, “hydrogen combustion does produce contrails,” said Sandra Bour Schaeffer, CEO of Airbus subsidiary UpNext. “This is what we want to isolate and study, to understand precisely the effect of hydrogen burn, in order to make the right choices on the path toward net-zero.”

Blue Condor will use two modified Arcus gliders, one equipped with a hydrogen-powered engine, and one with a conventional kerosene-powered engine of equivalent power, to compare the composition of the contrails each emits.

Airbus will provide the hydrogen combustion engine and propulsion system for the test, though the powerplant itself simply serves as a means of generating the contrails for study. The flight tests will happen in North Dakota in the northern Continental U.S. this winter, in collaboration with the University of North Dakota, and will finish by next spring. “You need a cold atmosphere” to produce contrails, Schaeffer said in explaining the test location and timetable.

The test flights will last an hour each at an altitude of about 33,000 feet. The aircraft will be towed aloft and flown in the same meteorological conditions to ensure comparable data. A chase plane outfitted with sensors from German research center DLR will collect the emissions data for analysis.

“We will then be able to extrapolate the results of our simplified hydrogen burn engine towards something which would be a representative engine for our zero-emission aircraft,” said Schaeffer. “We will build on that and define the next steps” on the company’s ZEROe path.

Airbus Blue Condor.

Airbus Blue Condor.