News Apr 11, 2024

Jacobs Supports Ground-breaking Airport Hydrogen Trial in the UK

Trial supports next critical step on journey to achieving zero emission aviation

Infographic showing an airport, plane, luggage truck and refueling hub.

Ground-breaking trial: Hydrogen used to refuel and power baggage tugs/tractors.

A ground-breaking airside hydrogen refueling trial, led by easyJet, and supported by Jacobs and cross-industry partners, has been successfully completed at Bristol Airport – the first airport trial of its kind at a major U.K. airport.

Hydrogen was used to refuel and power ground support equipment (GSE) – specifically, baggage tugs (or tractors) – servicing easyJet passenger aircraft. Conducted alongside the airline’s daily operations, the trial demonstrates that the gas can be safely and reliably used to refuel ground equipment in the busy, live airport environment.

The trial, dubbed Project Acorn, was under development for over a year and involved Jacobs and many other leading organizations from across aviation, engineering, logistics and academia, including Cranfield Aerospace SolutionsCranfield UniversityConnected Places Catapult (CPC), DHL Supply ChainFuel Cell Systems, the IAAPS research instituteMulag and TCR.

The group intends to use the outputs of the trial to help develop industry best practice standards, provide guidance to airports, airlines, local authorities and regulators on required infrastructure changes, and support the development of a regulatory framework for hydrogen’s use on an airfield – standards which, due to hydrogen’s nascency in aviation, do not currently exist.

The data and insights gathered will also feed into research that groups like Hydrogen in Aviation (HIA)* are conducting to ensure U.K. infrastructure, regulatory and policy changes keep pace with the technological developments in carbon-emission free flying. It also supports the work and ambitions of other bodies such as Hydrogen South West (HSW) and the Hydrogen Innovation Initiative (HII), the latter having also co-funded the project.

“It’s without doubt that hydrogen will be an important fuel of the future for short-haul aviation as demonstrated by the rate of innovation we’re seeing,” says easyJet Chief Operating Officer David Morgan. “While the technology is advancing at an exciting pace, as hydrogen isn’t used in commercial aviation today, there is currently no regulatory guidance in place on how it can and should be used and so trials like this are very important in building the safety case and providing critical data and insight to inform the development of the industry’s first regulatory framework. This will ensure regulation not only keeps at pace with innovation, but importantly also supports the industry in meeting its decarbonization targets by 2050.”

Jacobs is providing technical expertise and project management support and will be developing the insights and best practices for sharing with the industry later in the year.

Jacobs Senior Vice President Kate Kenny says: “Supporting this groundbreaking operational trial continues Jacobs’ strong track-record in industry-leading hydrogen aviation research projects, such as FlyZero and Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure. By investing in understanding the use of hydrogen in a live airport environment we hope to help move aviation an important step closer to decarbonization and a net-zero future.”

U.K. Aviation Minister Anthony Browne says: “Project Acorn is a great example of the U.K. aviation sector pushing the boundaries of what’s possible - using leading engineering to make decarbonization a reality from the ground operation to the planes themselves.”

“Projects such as this are cornerstones of our commitment to support innovation and decarbonization in the industry,” comments Civil Aviation Authority Director for Strategy, Policy and Communications Tim Johnson. “This trial will serve as the basis of a White Paper which we will also be contributing to, as well as allow for the creation of further safety guidance and regulatory standards for the use of hydrogen in aviation.”

Project Acorn - the seed to more rapid hydrogen growth in the U.K.

There is a compressed time window for the U.K.’s aviation industry to develop the ground infrastructure, safety standards (including how to use, control and transport hydrogen) and operational procedures needed to make the sector’s operations hydrogen ready. Project Acorn is designed to be a first step on this journey, with limited trials of GSE equipment accomplishing a key objective of receiving clearance for airside refueling from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – the regulator playing an active role in the trial as an independent reviewer of the safety case.

The safety assessments and emergency planning with local authorities that serve Bristol Airport will also provide invaluable learnings for future developments and serve as a blueprint for other local authorities – providing them with the necessary skills and resources to assist airports in making the transition to hydrogen.

A shorter-term objective for this project is to lead to the long-term or permanent deployment of hydrogen GSE at Bristol Airport and readying the airport for trials and then commercial operations of hydrogen-fueled aircraft. 

easyJet leads first hydrogen refuelling trial at a major UK airport

easyJet Head of Net Zero, Lahiru Ranasinghe, explains the key stages of the first airside hydrogen refueling trial ever to take place at a major U.K. airport.

Developing the safety case and regulatory framework 

Another objective is to develop the safety and regulatory framework needed to accelerate hydrogen in aviation. While hydrogen is a potential zero carbon emission fuel source for aviation and important developments have already been made across the industry**, there remains significant regulatory, safety and certification challenges. More research and testing is required to inform hydrogen infrastructure policy and safe handling in airport and airline operations to support future hydrogen adoption. 

Project Acorn’s operational trial of gaseous hydrogen-fueled GSE in an airport environment represents one such opportunity and, as the first airside hydrogen refueling trial to take place at a major U.K. airport, it is a significant milestone and an important stepping stone in future developments for hydrogen’s use in aviation. 

The ultimate aim of this research is to support the wider decarbonization of aviation through more rapid uptake of hydrogen. 

Benefits of hydrogen in aviation

Many leading experts believe hydrogen-powered aviation will not only be pivotal in delivering net zero, it will bring many economic benefits too. The U.K. Department for Transport’s Jet Zero Strategy (published July 2022) estimates that rapid investment in hydrogen aviation could provide upwards of 60,000 new jobs across the U.K., with Hydrogen U.K. projecting that hydrogen could contribute £18 billion ($23bn) gross value added and help meet up to 50% of the U.K.’s energy requirements by 2050.

Green hydrogen, produced from renewables, is a particularly exciting alternative aircraft fuel as, unlike other alternatives, it produces no carbon emissions. If fully realized, it will aid significantly with the industry’s decarbonization goals, while helping preserve an industry that provides significant value to our economy – U.K. aviation employs 230,000 people and contributes more than £22bn ($28bn) directly to GDP per year, plus £34bn ($43bn) from exporting aerospace components.

The Jet Zero Council has projected in the strategy that rapid investment in hydrogen aviation could see the U.K. securing up to 19% global aerospace industry and share of a benefit valued at £178bn ($225bn) per annum in 2050, which means this could generate an additional £34bn ($43bn) per annum for the U.K.

Investing in hydrogen will also help to preserve the social benefits of flying, continuing to connect people to business, loved ones and new destinations. 

*Hydrogen in Aviation (HIA) is formed of easyJet, Rolls-Royce, Airbus, Ørsted, GKN Aerospace and Bristol Airport.

**Airbus announced its ZEROe project and the ambition to bring the world’s first hydrogen-powered aircraft to market by 2035, and Rolls-Royce and easyJet’s partnership to develop hydrogen-powered engine technology continues to go from strength to strength.