Rolls-Royce fires up its first hydrogen jet engine
Rolls-Royce has edged the era of clean aviation a little closer to take-off with the successful testing of a modern jet engine using hydrogen as fuel. The test is described as a landmark achievement and an important step in the decarbonization of the industry, with flight testing of the technology in the pipeline.
The tests took place at an outdoor facility at the Ministry of Defence Boscombe Down military aircraft testing site in England, and involved a converted Rolls-Royce AE 2100-A regional aircraft engine. The exercise was carried out in partnership with air carrier easyJet, which has been making moves of its own when it comes to clean aviation.
This includes the development of a battery-powered plane for short journeys, previous testing of a hybrid hydrogen fuel system and, more recently, a multi-million-dollar investment in Rolls-Royce’s hydrogen technology program. That program centers on the development of a hydrogen combustion engine, an aspiration shared by other aerospace giants like Airbus, which plans to use its ZEROe Demonstrator as a flying testbed for the technology.
“The success of this hydrogen test is an exciting milestone,” said Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer of Rolls-Royce. “We only announced our partnership with easyJet in July and we are already off to an incredible start with this landmark achievement. We are pushing the boundaries to discover the zero carbon possibilities of hydrogen, which could help reshape the future of flight.”
While running a converted jet engine on hydrogen is an important box to tick off, equally important is where the hydrogen comes from. Hydrogen produced through what’s known as steam-methane reforming involves separating hydrogen atoms from methane, which releases carbon dioxide, though green hydrogen is gathering steam as the world works toward cleaner sources of energy.
This is produced through the electrolysis of water and is powered entirely by renewable energy, creating zero emissions as a result. In this case, the Rolls-Royce engine was powered by green hydrogen sourced through wind and tidal power generated at a facility in the UK’s Orkney Islands.
“The UK is leading the global shift to guilt-free flying, and today’s test by Rolls-Royce and easyJet is an exciting demonstration of how business innovation can transform the way we live our lives,” said UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Grant Shapps. “This is a true British success story, with the hydrogen being used to power the jet engine today produced using tidal and wind energy from the Orkney Islands of Scotland – and is a prime example of how we can work together to make aviation cleaner while driving jobs across the country.”
With this early concept demonstration under their belts, Rolls-Royce and easyJet are now planning a second series of test runs. Following that, the roadmap calls for full-scale ground testing of a Rolls-Royce Pearl 15 jet engine, with longer-term ambitions involving flight tests further down the line.
“This is a real success for our partnership team,” said Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet. “We are committed to continuing to support this ground-breaking research because hydrogen offers great possibilities for a range of aircraft, including easyJet-sized aircraft. That will be a huge step forward in meeting the challenge of net zero by 2050.”