So far, nearly half of this global demand has been generated in low-altitude refueling activities such as jettisoning fuel from aeroplanes. It can support operations of even very small numbers of passengers for a fraction of the current fuel needs. Fuel used for high altitude aerial refueling is more expensive, which is one reason why this activity is rare. It is easy to build but quite complex and expensive to operate. The increasing demand is being met by existing narrowbody and widebody aircraft which fly very long distances.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology will enable all airliners to use its fuel to power planes at near zero weight (fewer than 10 tonnes), thus reducing the cost of transporting it. (This is the nice “wow” factor of the technology.) Potential technologies at this stage include consumer-friendly gas fuel cell batteries in sport car styling, or exciting hydrogen-powered machines destined for the race tracks or maybe the next generation of Bentleys.
However, no matter how impressive the technology, the real game changer is in the distribution.
There is simply no effective way to store the vast amounts of hydrogen currently required for flight and this will severely hamper the technology’s growth. Put another way, the number of airports equipped to maintain and store hydrogen for flight are relatively limited (in both infrastructure and technical expertise). Countries are not exactly investing in infrastructure. Additionally, the supply chain infrastructure to transfer hydrogen from where it is produced in the ground to where it is used in air is extremely complex.
In other words, it is almost impossible to sell us hydrogen to fill up the tanks of our planes. We are encouraged to “enjoy the fuels at the airport”.
The only way for this nascent technology to soar is to invest massively in the infrastructure necessary to get hydrogen to where it is needed most – in the airports. New infrastructure will increase the supply of hydrogen needed in the ground and this will be enough to satisfy existing airports’ needs for hydrogen. By integrating fuel cell technology into aircraft by operating it on heavy fuel, airlines will gain enhanced power and a fuel and power efficiency substantially higher than alternative propulsion technologies.