Airbus developing innovative cryogenic tanks to support hydrogen-powered flight; targeting demonstrator tank by 2026-2028
Airbus is developing innovative cryogenic hydrogen storage tanks to support future aircraft fueled by liquid hydrogen. Liquid hydrogen needs to be stored at -253 °C.
In its simplest terms, says Airbus, there are two main technologies that enable an aircraft to fly directly with hydrogen. You can power an engine with hydrogen combustion through modified gas turbine engines, and you can use hydrogen fuel cells to create electrical power. And you can deploy a hybrid approach that uses a mixture of both technologies.
Regardless of these options there is a constant at work: liquid hydrogen needs to be stored at -253°C, and kept at that temperature consistently throughout the whole flight, even when the tanks are depleted.
Storage tanks for a hydrogen-powered aircraft are therefore an absolutely essential component, but they are completely different to those you might find on a traditional aircraft.
About 15 months ago, Airbus established Zero Emission Development Centers (ZEDCs) in Nantes, France, and Bremen, Germany, with the task of designing and manufacturing the hydrogen tanks
Bremen is close to Ariane Group and Airbus Defence and Space, with their experience working with hydrogen, and Nantes has considerable expertise with metallic structures. The tank is manufactured in Nantes, and the coldbox, which takes care of the gasification of the liquid hydrogen, is produced in Bremen.
This tank isn’t just innovative technically—it represents a departure from traditional processes. Embracing a dynamic and agile working methodology, the teams adopted a co-development approach where in order to progress quickly they accepted the need to innovate, test, fail fast, and adapt. In short, the teams get straight into manufacturing a prototype, which they test and learn from before developing an improved prototype, rather than spending a lot of time working on theoretical plans.
This speed is highlighted by the progress made at the site in Nantes, where the team took an empty warehouse and built the first cryogenic hydrogen tank ever produced at Airbus in a little over a year.
The journey to bringing this new technology to market goes something like this:
Engineers design the cryogenic hydrogen tanks on software in Toulouse.
These designs are passed onto the teams in Nantes and Bremen, who review them and explore the process for manufacture.
Once the design is agreed, the first prototype tank—which is tested with nitrogen, not hydrogen—is developed. This is where Airbus is now.
The insights and testing data is collated and all of this information goes into the design for a second prototype, to be filled with hydrogen. Airbus is looking in particular at maximizing space, improving performance, and simplifying the manufacturing process. Work on the second tank is already underway and will take around another year to build and test.
The final objective is to have a tank ready to install in the A380 demonstrator by 2026-2028.