Designers hope hydrogen-powered plane will fly halfway around the world without refueling

The zero-emission aircraft would supposedly match the speed and comfort of current midsize planes.

Aerospace Technology Institute

One of the toughest nuts to crack when it comes to developing carbon-free transportation is flying. Commercial electric planes won't be feasible until batteries become more powerful and lightweight. Hydrogen-powered flight is another possible way forward, and a research group has revealed what such a plane could look like.

The FlyZero project, which is led by the Aerospace Technology Institute and funded by the UK government, came up with a concept for a liquid hydrogen-powered midsize aircraft. It said the plane would be able to fly 279 passengers non-stop from London to San Francisco, or from London to Auckland, New Zealand with one stop for refueling. The aircraft, which has a 54-meter wingspan with two turbofan engines, would offer the "same speed and comfort as today’s aircraft" but with zero carbon emissions.

The ATI says its concept plane would have cryogenic fuel tanks in the rear fuselage, which would store hydrogen at -250 degrees Celsius (-418 degrees Farenheit). Two smaller "cheek" tanks along the forward fuselage would keep the plane balanced as fuel is used.

We're years away from commercial hydrogen aircraft becoming a reality, though. The refueling infrastructure doesn't exist yet and hydrogen is more expensive and difficult to store onboard than kerosene-based fuel. Those types of planes might not be too much of a pipe dream, however.

The ATI expects that, by the middle of the 2030s, efficient hydrogen planes might be a more economical option than current planes. That's partly because other sectors are shifting toward hydrogen, which is likely to reduce supply costs.

The FlyZero project plans to publish more detailed findings early next year, including concepts for regional, narrowbody and midsize aircraft, economic and market reports, roadmaps for the required tech and a sustainability assessment.