Could airports make hydrogen work as a fuel?

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Could airports make hydrogen work as a fuel?

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On a typical day 1,300 planes take off and land at Heathrow Airport, and keeping that going requires around 20 million litres of jet fuel every day.

That’s the equivalent of filling up your car around 400,000 times.

It’s a massive operation, with fuel piped to the airport direct from refineries and then stored at two facilities know as fuel farms.

“The amount of fuel that passes through Heathrow is enormous. It’s about half of the UK’s jet fuel requirement,” says Matt Prescott, head of carbon strategy at Heathrow.

Heathrow Airport itself does not buy and sell fuel, that’s down to the airlines and their suppliers.

However, it does have to think about the infrastructure, allotting space for storage and pipes, and making sure the airlines and fuel firms have everything they need.

“It’s really about building up the sufficient capacity to ensure that the airport has that resilience built in,” says Mr Prescott.

But, when it comes to fuel, airports around the world are having to have a major rethink.

In the UK, under the government’s Jet Zero plan, by 2040 the UK aviation industry has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions.

The US aviation industry plans to reach net zero by 2050. The European Union has a similar goal.

  • What is net zero and how are countries getting there?

These are ambitious targets and to reach them will require alternatives to traditional jet fuel.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) – fuel that does not come from fossil fuels – is one option. Airlines are already using it, usually blended with regular jet fuel.

For airports it’s simple to supply SAF – it can be delivered via existing pipes.

But many doubt whether SAF can be produced cheaply enough, or in large enough quantities, to meet the needs of the airline industry.

So, there is much interest in hydrogen, which can store a lot of energy and, when used as fuel, does not produce any CO2.

To be of any use to the aviation industry, hydrogen needs to be in its liquid form, which involves chilling it to minus 253C.

Handling a liquid at that kind of temperature is immensely challenging. Given the chance, liquid hydrogen will “boil-off” and escape as a gas – potentially becoming a hazard.

So tanks, pipes and hoses all have to be extra-insulated to keep the liquid cold.

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