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Home » A record-breaking commercial-scale hydrogen plane has taken off in the UK, with more set to join it soon.

A record-breaking commercial-scale hydrogen plane has taken off in the UK, with more set to join it soon.

A record-breaking commercial-scale hydrogen plane has taken off in the UK, with more set to join it soon.

How far can such planes go in cutting the aviation industry's emissions?

As the plane rose from the runway for what was to prove a smooth and uneventful flight, the team breathed a sigh of relief. The six-seater Piper M-Class had been fitted out at a research and development hub at Cranfield airport in the UK to run on hydrogen, and on this maiden flight in the late summer of 2020 everything worked perfectly. With that flight, ZeroAvia, the California-based start-up that had developed the aircraft with partners in Britain and elsewhere, was ready to move to the next stage in the journey towards zero carbon aviation.

A catchphrase for the transition to a low or zero carbon economy is "electrify everything" – that is, create a world in which most human activities, from manufacturing and construction to transport and tourism, run on electricity generated from low or zero carbon sources such as wind, solar and perhaps nuclear power. But there is a problem: some sectors look to be hard if not impossible to electrify in the near and medium term, and aviation is, perhaps, foremost among them.

Before the pandemic grounded most flights, commercial aviation accounted for about 2.5% of global emissions of carbon dioxide. It sounds like a small proportion of the whole, but it is more than those of Germany (2.2%), and this is not the whole story. Carbon dioxide accounts for about half of aviation's contribution to what is known as its effective radiative forcing – that is, its total contribution to the factors that actually drive a rise in global average temperature. Contrails – water vapour trails from aircraft – are aviation's largest other factor.

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