The third instalment in our low carbon aviation series
seeks to explore some of the factors that airport operators will need to consider in relation to the supply of hydrogen. Here we build on our second article – Sustainable Aviation: Could Hydrogen be a Solution? – and look at some of the practical challenges for hydrogen delivery that will allow hydrogen-fuelled aircraft to take-off.
Supplying hydrogen to airports would present some unique design challenges, necessitating careful consideration of manufacturing demands and operational requirements. Airport infrastructure would need to integrate within a (potentially national) hydrogen supply network requiring significant infrastructure development and investment in clean energy production.
The technology for producing large quantities of green hydrogen (i.e. hydrogen from renewable electricity) is less mature than blue/grey hydrogen and so the short-term costs will be higher. Delivering these volumes of green liquid hydrogen for aviation applications will require significant infrastructure development and investment in clean energy production.
Hydrogen supply is likely to be developed ahead of aviation demand and so will not necessarily be linked to airport locations. However, many of the proposed locations for UK hydrogen production locations are indeed close to airport locations but given that airports have access to land and substantial electrical supplies, they could be expected to develop liquefaction capability to support aviation requirements. According to FlyZero, Aviation’s particular need for liquefaction of hydrogen at scale will require technical development and investment, which may not necessarily be part of the wider hydrogen economy. Although aviation could require between 10-30% of national demand, the wider market will be the main driver for hydrogen production capacity.
How hydrogen is delivered to the airport is contingent on a number of factors, from the size of the airport, its location and geography, to the scale of hydrogen demand.
Considerations for airports
There are many things for airports to consider when deciding which of the scenarios above should be implemented (and when). However, some of the key considerations for airport operators under each scenario include:
Scenario 1: Hydrogen generated and liquefied offsite, supplied by road tankers to airports
- The impact that delivering hydrogen by tankers could have on congestion on local roads/ around off-load points and how this might impact airport operations
- The number of insulated hydrogen tanks required to meet anticipated refuelling demand (including any fuel buffer stock in case of disrupted supply) and the space requirements for each tank
- A ‘small airport’ will likely need c.2,000 sqm of space by 2035 to accommodate tanker deliveries and storage requirements and 11,000 sqm by 2050. However, a large airport could need as much as 110,000 sqm of space by 2050 if still using delivery scenario 1
- Smaller airports with lower hydrogen refuelling demand will only require minimal amounts of supporting infrastructure (eg tanker delivery terminals/off-load points and storage tanks)
- Risk that as insulated storage tanks are cyclically emptied and refilled, expansion/contraction of tanks could lead to fatigue cracking over time and require replacement
Scenario 2: Hydrogen generated off-site, supplied in a gas pipeline to the airport and liquefied at the airport
- The cost of building a liquefaction plant/facility on-site that can turn gaseous hydrogen supplied by the pipeline into liquid hydrogen
- The energy costs associated with on-site liquefaction
- Distributing hydrogen gas over long distances via pipeline is very feasible, but the cost of the gas pipeline that feeds into the liquefaction plant will be dependent on factors such as airport size, uptake of hydrogen aircraft, pipe length, pressure differentials and the number of bends and valves
- Building new transport pipelines, associated compression facilities and above ground installations is capital intensive. Stakeholders should consider if existing natural gas pipelines can be repurposed (by replacing cast iron mains with polyethylene) to make the networks more hydrogen ready and reduce capital cost
- Consider alternative use cases for hydrogen at the airport. For example, a pipeline of gaseous hydrogen supply might be able to better support airport heating and ground support equipment
Scenario 3: Hydrogen produced and liquefied locally at the airport
- Consider whether the energy requirements might be too high to produce hydrogen and then liquify it on-site
- Producing hydrogen at the airport using electrolysis requires off-site inputs (electricity from the grid and water from local water networks). Electrolysis and (to a lesser extent) liquefaction require significant amounts of electrical power that would need to be delivered by multiple, dedicated overhead high-power lines
- It is likely to be more efficient/cost effective to deliver gaseous hydrogen via pipelines to the airport, particularly for large airports
- Is there sufficient space? The larger the airport, the greater the amount of space that will be required to house the necessary hydrogen infrastructure. For example, by 2050 a typical large airport would need c.325,000 m² of space under scenario 3. In contrast, if hydrogen were supplied to airports via a pipeline (as per scenario 2), airports would need around 180,000 m² of space, or 80% less space
Hydrogen infrastructure spatial summary requirements by 2050
These are just some of the many factors that airports will have to consider. For liquid hydrogen fuelled aircraft to take off, considerable supporting infrastructure will be needed, but there are a host of other factors ranging from regulations and procedures to the wider UK liquefaction capability – much of which hinges on government policy around the world.
The UK has signalled its intentions for hydrogen development through its hydrogen strategy. As set out in the British Energy Security Strategy, the UK Government, working with industry, is aiming for 10GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for use across the economy. This doubled the Government’s previous ambition from the 10-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and the Hydrogen Strategy, with at least half of our new 10GW ambition coming from electrolytic hydrogen.
FlyZero’s report, which was published prior to the British Energy Security Strategy, indicated that the original ambition to produce 5GW of low carbon hydrogen annual would easily meet aviation’s demands all the way to 2040. While it is unclear how much of this capacity would be available for aviation, the key factor is that hydrogen supply will be developed and available ahead of aviation demand and will therefore not need to be produced on site at airports.
It therefore seems likely that after an initial period of supplying liquified hydrogen by road tankers to UK airports (Scenario 1), hydrogen will be generated off site (under the Government’s targets) and supplied to airports via pipelines for on-site liquification (Scenario 2). As such, most airports will be able to plan around these two scenarios and consider how they will approach building out the necessary supporting infrastructure.
G&T’s Work in the Aviation Sector
G&T offers Project Management and Management Consultancy services within the aviation sector and has a keen interest in clean energy infrastructure such as hydrogen.
G&T also offers Cost Planning and Cost Management services and has worked on recent projects such as Gatwick Pier 6 (a project connecting the existing North terminal to new satellite serving stands). The G&T cost team is assisting aviation clients such as Gatwick Airport with developing greener buildings, bringing knowledge of timber and hybrid frames into comparisons with traditional steel and concrete building forms.
G&T will also support Gatwick in determining appetite for their future capital plans, determining what the capability, capacity, and risks are to Gatwick that exist in this highly volatile market. More broadly, these Supply Market Management (or SMM) services are needed across the aviation sector in order for clients to assess how their delivery plans and ambitious Net Zero strategies are implemented by the market.
G&T was also awarded a sole framework for the provision of independent assurance services at Heathrow Airport. G&T’s appointment as Heathrow’s Independent Fund Surveyor (IFS) was subsequently extended. Find out more, here.
G&T Appointments to the British Aviation Group
Board Partner Jason Fowler and Associate Emily Wiltshire are also both heavily involved in the British Aviation Group (BAG) – the leading representative body for British companies involved in aviation and airport development operations.
BAG works closely with the UK’s Department for International Trade and with airports across the UK provides access to intelligence on priority markets and business opportunities. The group connects with key decision makers through events and trade missions, provides up to date industry news and promote opportunities to network build collaborative relationships.
Jason, in his capacity as chair of the BAG, raises overall awareness of the group and helps in its provision of world class expertise to meet the challenges of the global aviation industry, creating the airports of the future through the network. Meanwhile Emily (as the BAG NextGen Deputy Chair) brings the ‘NextGen’ together to discuss, network and educate themselves on clean energy, technology and other critical areas of aviation. The group brings together architects, airports, contractors, robotics and technology, energy providers and more into one space.
“The aviation sector is at a huge juncture with challenges such as sufficient skilled workforce to help clean and bring efficiencies to the sector, to multiple fuel sources and aircraft types. We could see hydrogen, SAF, electric and kerosene airplanes all operating together with eVTOL’s and drones in the next 15 years, which is incredible. G&T is committed to this journey through providing cost data, project services and more, to ensure that the UK hits its net zero targets with the infrastructure in place to do so.”
Hydrogen has emerged as a potential aviation fuel of the future but shifting to hydrogen is not without its challenges.
Building new aircraft with powertrain systems that use hydrogen (or retrofitting existing aircraft with new hydrogen powertrains) needs to happen in tandem with the building out of supporting hydrogen production and refuelling infrastructure.
As identified in FlyZero’s report, this is likely to be a phased journey with several incremental steps, starting with the delivery of hydrogen that has been liquified off-site to airports via tanker deliveries and, as momentum and demand builds, the implementation of more substantial infrastructure needed to support hydrogen aircraft. Hydrogen’s journey will depend to a large extent on technology investment decisions that will be made in the coming years.
However, hydrogen is not the only sustainable solution available, and it will be important to consider the various advantages and constraints of each solution. Many expect to see three technological segments emerge: smaller all-electric aircraft with shorter ranges, larger long-haul aircraft that use SAFs, and falling between these two segments will be regional/intra-continental and narrow body aircraft – a gap filled by both hydrogen and hybrid-electric aircraft.
Hydrogen has the advantage of being able to do away with all carbon emissions but requires significant investment in a hydrogen supply chain. Electric and hybrid-electric aircraft will also require significant investment in purpose-built electrical infrastructure and energy management systems that can support powerful and efficient charging. SAF – the other complementary solution, but one which doesn’t eliminate CO2 emissions – would also need additional infrastructure to be built. Several commercial-scale, SAF-producing plants are planned in the UK, but these involve high capital costs and will likely need further financial (as well as policy) support from the Government to get built.
With a plethora of potential solutions on offer, the overarching goal of decarbonising the UK aviation sector will likely require significant investment into a range of technologies, fuels and supporting infrastructure. A joined-up approach to infrastructure development that moves in lockstep with technology and fuel development will be critical to fully realise the wider sustainability goals. Long-term capital decisions and policies have not yet been finalised, but it is clear that when they are, it will be vital to have a clear pathway to go live and considers the multiple stakeholders involved, the required resources, as well as any risks and barriers. Services such as programme development, project/cost/risk management, stakeholder management and supply chain management will be crucial to reaching net zero by 2050 or perhaps more critically, the launch of the first hydrogen commercial plane in 2035. Gardiner & Theobald is advising both new and existing clients that are operating in the aviation sector and in these services and can help you achieve your net zero targets.
For more information about aviation infrastructure development in the UK and how G&T can help, contact Jason Fowler at firstname.lastname@example.org.