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The Potential for Hydrogen Powered Commercial Flight in the Northeastern USA and Canada

By Harry Valentine
August 3, 2008

As fuel prices continue to soar, alternative fuels and technologies are becoming increasingly important and necessary. Harry Valentine discusses the viability of converting aircraft to fly on Hydrogen fuel, which might be more feasible than most think.

Hydrogen powered short-haul commercial flight could become viable in the Northeastern USA and Eastern Canada should world oil prices remain high over both the near term and the long term. Existing aircraft turbine engines can be adapted to burning hydrogen with minimal modifications. Fuel costs have historically been a significant factor in commercial aircraft operations and recent increases in fuel costs have caused economic hardship for most airlines. Long-term projections indicate that a barrel of oil could rise to over US$200 per barrel barring any major new discoveries of oil reserves.

Synthetic aviation has become available in countries like South Africa where the Sasolburg group produces oil from coal and is sold to airlines at international fuel prices. Coal-based synthetic aviation fuel would be a viable alternative jet fuel in the USA, Australia, China and India where extensive coal reserves exist. The South African precedent indicates that coal based synthetic fuel would sell at world oil prices over the near term and even over the longer term. Such conditions could justify the introduction of alternate fuels such as hydrogen into the commercial aviation industry.

Commercial aviation turbine engines have successfully operated on hydrogen on the test bed as well as in flight. Only minor modifications need be done to existing aviation turbine engine technology for hydrogen to be used as a commercial aviation fuel. The hydrogen would have to be carried in a tank mounted above the fuselage. The Airbus group of France has already provided a precedent by greatly increasing the fuselage cross-section of a few existing models of commercial aircraft to carry cargo of enormous volumetric proportions. A very large cylindrical tank of hydrogen could be carried within such proportions for future aircraft intended to operate short-haul flights of under 1000-miles.

Click for large version
Click here for full size photo!
The physical appearance of the Airbus A300 Super Transporter
would resemble that of a hydrogen powered jet.
Photo © Julien Bersheim

There are numerous locations around the world where it would be possible to generate hydrogen at competitive cost given the projected world price of a barrel of oil. One of those locations is Northeastern Canada where an abundance of wind energy during winter and year round ocean energy could feasibly generate electricity that electrolysis machinery would use to split hydrogen from the oxygen in ocean water. Canada is home to a massive inland oceanic lake known as Hudson Bay over which powerful winds blow year round and especially during winter.

There are an estimated 1600-islands on the eastern side of Hudson Bay as well as another 100-islands on the eastern side of James Bay that lies to the southeast of Hudson Bay over which powerful winds blow. Both bays provide the province of Quebec with an extensive western coastline over which powerful winds blow at high elevation. American companies such as SkyWindPower and Makani along with a Canadian company called Magenn are developing airborne wind turbines that would generate more electric power at higher availability and at lower cost than offshore tower based turbines.

Powerful winds also blow at high altitude over the Everett Mountains of southeastern Baffin Island and over the Torngat Mountains of Northern Labrador. It may be able to install some 5000 airborne wind turbines from any of these companies over most of the islands of Hudson Bay and James Bay as well as an extra 5000 such turbines along the western coast of Quebec. Additional wind turbines may also be installed over the mountains of Baffin Island and Northern Labrador should the need arise. SkyWindPower claims that within 3-years that their technology could generate up to 20-megawatts (MW) from each installation at a projected cost of below 5-cents per kilowatt-hour. Greater power levels may be possible at competitive cost from high-elevation wind power technology over the long-term future.

There is the potential to generate over 200,000MW of electric power from the high-altitude winter winds that blow over Northern Canada and produce the equivalent of over 125,000MW of hydrogen via electrolysis (8,000,000-lbs hydrogen per hour containing 51,000-BTU/lb). Given the nature of wind power generation the practical average available power may be closer to 50,000MW. Ocean tides move massive volumes of water through Hudson Strait between the Atlantic Ocean and Hudson Bay. Kinetic turbines installed in many of the channels in Hudson Strait could generate up to 30,000MW of electrical output that could produce up to 11,000,000-lbs of hydrogen per day.

Hydrogen from northeastern Canada may be shipped south through the combination of undersea and overland pipelines to such cities as Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Boston, New York City and Washington. A percentage of the hydrogen would be stored in the identical manner as natural gas, that is, in large subterranean dome-roof caverns that have been flushed of salt. Some of these caverns can measure up to a mile in diameter by up to 6-miles in vertical height.

Hydrogen powered commercial aircraft could operate scheduled commercial service on routes that connect the aforementioned cities. Linear electric motors such as those used on magnetically levitated trains may be embedded into runways of major airports so as to help reduce overall consumption of aviation fuel. Airplanes could use linear motors to taxi within the airport and also to accelerate to take-off speed on main runways. Linear motors could also help decelerate aircraft after landing on so-equipped runways.

A variety of hydrogen powered road vehicles such as fleets of city transport buses would likely operate in cities served by hydrogen powered short-haul flight. A large non-aviation customer base for hydrogen would help spread the cost of producing, storing and distributing hydrogen for the aviation industry.

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Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Terence Li

Long-Haul Hydrogen-powered Flight

Research has already begun in the USA into hydrogen-powered ultra-high altitude supersonic flight. Powerful winds blow over the Andes Mountains of South America and the Sierra Mountains of Central America where batteries of high-altitude wind turbines may be installed. Ocean turbines may also be able to generate electric power from the strong ocean current also moves northward along the coast of Chile and Peru. That electric power could produce hydrogen that could become available at airports like Lima, Santiago and Buenos Aires. The market niche for such technology would likely be north-south flights such as New York – Buenos Aires that cross over very few time zones.


Short-haul, hydrogen-powered commercial flight would likely develop in regions and at locations where an abundance of electric power could be generated at relatively low costs. Those costs would ensure that hydrogen would be competitive with other jet fuel over both the near term as well as the long term. On that basis it would become possible to generate large quantities of hydrogen for use in the transportation industry.

The existing aviation turbine engines could be modified to operate on hydrogen with minimal modifications. Long-haul commercial flights that are powered by hydrogen would likely develop between regions where short-haul hydrogen-powered flights had been instituted. The hydrogen may be transported either by pipeline or inside spherical tanks aboard ships that may call at such ports as New York City, Boston and Baltimore (Washington DC).

The cost of generating electric power from wind, ocean current, ocean wave and solar sources is projected to decline over the long term just as the cost of producing hydrogen from those sources is expected to decrease. The World Ocean Institute has suggested that the energy of ocean waves could generate some 10-times the amount of electric power generated by other means around the world. Solar energy proponents assert that the earth receives over 12,000-times the amount of energy from the sun than the total consumed on earth. Over the long term cost competitive hydrogen would become a viable aviation fuel.



Written by
Harry Valentine

Harry Valentine holds a degree in engineering and has a background in free market economics. He has worked in the transportation industry for several years and has published in that industry as well as in the energy industry. He can be reached at harrycv@hotmail.com.

1 User Comments:
Username: A320FlyGuy [User Info]
Posted 2014-09-18 11:12:25 and read 6217 times.


Compliments on a most informative and interesting article. Prior to reading your post I had no idea that hydrogen had ever been considered as a fuel source for commercial aircraft. I do recall reading about various biofuel experiments with a variety of different aircraft engine manufactures and supported by both Boeing and Airbus.

In Ben Rich's autobiography "Skunk Works - A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed", Chapter 8 is titled "Blowing Up Burbank" (a title that today would send the TSA and FBI into a state of total chaos) and it is a rather complete documentation of efforts at Lockheed in the 1950s to develop a long range, hydrogen powered jet aircraft for military use. At the time, the development program was run in parallel to U2 development. In an interesting twist, Lockheed (driven by Kelly Johnson's fascination with the concept of hydrogen utilization) starts to produce copious amounts of hydrogen - briefly becoming the largest producer of hydrogen anywhere in the world.

The program was initiated because of a strong belief and intelligence that indicated that the Soviet Union was developing hydrogen powered aircraft and it was a matter of national security to accelerate development of a hydrogen powered aircraft that would meet and exceed anything to come out of Russia.

In any case, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of the book - it is a really fascinating read and "Blowing Up Burbank" will most certainly provide more than a few chuckles about some of the unexpected problems that Lockheed ran into!



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