The airline easyJet has unveiled plans to implement a hydrogen (H2) fuel system for its aircraft which could save around 50,000 tonnes of fuel each year.

The hybrid plane concept, set to trial this year, utilises a H2 fuel cell which is stowed in the aircraft’s hold. The zero-emissions system allows energy to be captured as the aircraft brakes on landing and is used to charge the system’s lightweight batteries when the aircraft is on the ground.

The energy generated can then be used by the aircraft when taxiing without needing to use its jet engines. 4% of the airline’s total fuel consumed annually is used when taxiing. easyJet’s aircraft average 20 minutes of taxi time per flight, equating to roughly four million miles each year.

The plane would then use the only waste product of H2 fuel cell production – water – to refill the aircraft’s water system throughout the flight.

Ian Davies, Head of Engineering, commented, “At easyJet, we are continuing to apply the use of new digital and engineering technologies across the airline. The hybrid plane concept we are announcing today is both a vision of the future and a challenge to our partners and suppliers to continue to push the boundaries towards reducing our carbon emissions.”

The UK-based airline has set revised carbon footprint targets for 2020, aiming to reduce its emissions by 7% in the next five years. Today it emits 81.05g of carbon dioxide (CO2) per passenger km.

The news from EasyJet is not the first time hydrogen fuel cells have been used to power planes – in 2008 Intelligent Energy demonstrated the first fuel cell powered manned flight in partnership with Boeing. The company has made a number of announcements recently concerning its ability to embed hydrogen fuel cells in consumer products, while it is also understood to be working with a major drone manufacturer on the commercialisation of hydrogen-powered drones.

Reflecting on easyJet’s new plans, Intelligent Energy CEO Henri Winand said, “EasyJet’s announcement is further evidence that the hydrogen moment has arrived. We are very pleased indeed to see the plane receive such a warm welcome from international media.”

“There is proven technology for hydrogen fuel cell powered flight – Intelligent Energy demonstrated in 2008 the first fuel cell powered manned flight in partnership with Boeing. We also produced an auxiliary power unit for Airbus, so this is certainly not the first time the major aircraft manufacturers have explored fuel cell technology, but the intervention of a major operator is great progress.”

“Applications for hydrogen fuel cells are expanding rapidly and driving the market forward. Coupled with increasing demand this is helping bring down the cost of the technology…The entrance of a major operator like EasyJet is great news for hydrogen fuel cells and has huge potential for the environment too. We eagerly anticipate the outcomes of this project and offer EasyJet a very warm welcome to the sector.”