Hydrogen should take priority over biofuel in aviation: WWF

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The aviation industry should focus research and development programmes on liquid hydrogen rather than third-generation biofuels in the quest to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, according to World Wildlife Fund director for global energy policy Stephan Singer.

Speaking at a roundtable on environmental issues at the European Parliament in Brussels today - part of the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe's (ASD) Aeroweek conference - Singer said liquid hydrogen and algae-derived biofuels should be the focus of investment over other alternative fuels because they are less likely to interfere with land used for food production.

"Liquid biofuels may come in as the only alternative to oil but there is a vivid debate to look into liquid hydrogen as a long-term solution," says Singer. "Liquid biofuels may provide a short-term solution but they are also carbon-based."

Safran chief executive Jean-Paul Herteman agrees that liquid hydrogen "would be nice", but points to significant drawbacks relating to safety and density which make its use in the aviation industry "a 40 to 50 year challenge rather than a 20 year challenge".

Adds Herteman: "If you look at the Airbus A380, we know how to make the engines and store hydrogen but there would be no available room left for passengers."

Singer accepts that liquid hydrogen is "not on the shelf" at this stage, but urges the industry to step up R+D funding on the grounds that "breakthroughs can happen when people put an emphasis on something".

"We have a tendency to underestimate the technological breakthroughs that can happen in a few years," says Singer. "If you look at the information captured in a laptop computer, 15 to 20 years ago you would have needed a computer the size of a cupboard to capture it."

In addition to calling for increased investment in liquid hydrogen research, Singer is calling for airline passengers to "pay a realistic price for emissions" and for higher fuel taxes on the aviation sector.

"The aviation and shipping sectors are mostly exempt from fuel taxes - this should be changed quite substantively. They have much higher growth rates than any other industry," he says.