Image Source: Bloomberg
Automaker Rolls-Royce is testing a small jet engine for an airplane in a windy part of a military base on Salisbury Plain. These tests could one day lead to significant changes in the aviation industry.
Almost everything about the engine itself is standard. It is a Rolls-Royce AE-2100A gas turbine, a type of engine used on many regional planes worldwide.
The fuel used is a very strange thing about it. This is the first time hydrogen has been used to power a modern airplane engine.
It sits on a solid test rig with none of its bodywork and all of its wiring and pipes on display. At the same time, engineers in the control room, which is a safe distance away, crowd around several screens.
Rolls Royce and EasyJet came together to conduct the tests.
The main goal right now is to show that hydrogen can be used instead of traditional aviation fuels to run and control a jet engine.
In the long run, the plan is for hydrogen power to play a significant role in letting the aviation industry keep growing while reducing climate change emissions.
EasyJet is helping with the project and has given a few million pounds to help with the first tests.
The company thinks hydrogen power is the best way to reduce pollution from short-haul flights.
Hydrogen is a better alternative
Hydrogen is better than batteries because it gives off much more power per kilogram than batteries. In addition, larger planes can’t use batteries because they are too heavy.
But going from there to making a completely new engine that can safely power a passenger plane will take a lot more research and money.
They will need to change the planes. Even when it’s liquid, hydrogen takes up about four times as much space as the same amount of kerosene.
It becomes liquid after cooling to -253C, then, it has to be turned back into a gas for it to be burned.
The other important question is where the hydrogen comes from because that will significantly affect how good it is for the environment.
Rolls-Royce still at testing stage
Rolls Royce made use of Green hydrogen made at the European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkney Islands as fuel in the tests.
It splits water into its hydrogen and oxygen parts with the help of an electric current. Then, they used wave and wind power to make the needed electricity. It is a very clean fuel because of this.
But most of the hydrogen used in industry today comes from a process that combines high-pressure, high-temperature steam and natural gas.
However, this makes a lot of carbon dioxide, which they release into the air. It also takes a lot of energy, often made by burning fossil fuels.
Blue hydrogen is a possible alternative. Although it is produced through a similar process except that the carbon dioxide is stored or used again.
This should make it a fuel with less carbon and less pollution. But a paper from researchers at Cornell and Stanford universities last year argued against this point of view.
They said using blue hydrogen might still hurt the environment more than burning fossil fuels.
Mr. Finch thinks this means limited supply of green hydrogen for decades. And he says that aviation may be a low priority for governments.
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This means it will probably be a long time before the use of hydrogen planes that don’t cause any pollution.
Even then, they will likely start by only going to short-haul markets. Most people think synthetic sustainable fuels will be better for long-distance routes.
Still, we might see these first tests on Salisbury Plain in the future as the first tentative steps toward a technological revolution in the industry.