Comparing the impact on the climate for transporting freight via various modalities can quickly become complex. The carbon footprint is measured in grams per ton-kilometres: how much carbon dioxide is emitted when transporting a metric tonne for one kilometre.
To my surprise, the carbon footprint of ocean freight is the lowest: “only” 8 grams per ton-kilometre. Next is rail freight with a little over 20 grams, and road freight with a little over 60 grams. Air freight has the highest impact: more than 600 grams per ton-km. With air freight, you must remember that this high number is only relevant for freighter planes. Half of the world’s airfreight isn’t transported in freighter planes but passenger planes. To calculate the carbon footprint of freight in passenger planes, you would only need to consider the extra fuel burned because of the added freight. The aircraft was flying from A to B with the passengers anyway. According to calculations by Freigthos, the environmental impact of lower-deck cargo is 60-90 grams per ton-km, which puts it almost on par with road freight.
Like the trucking and shipping industries, the aircraft industry is also looking for ways to minimise its environmental impact. A Dutch public-private consortium seems to have found a solution to the problem.
HAPPS to Fly Passengers Between London and the Netherlands starting 2028
The consortium, with members like Fokker, TNO, KLM, and the University of Delft, is developing the HAPPS, the Hydrogen Aircraft Powertrain and Storage System. The system will initially be built into an existing turboprop plane that can carry 40-80 passengers. After successful testing, the system will be ready to be scaled up to power larger planes carrying more passengers or cargo.
Initially, the aircraft will be suitable for relatively short-range flights. In areas like Scandinavia or New Zealand, it would be a much faster alternative to road freight. In both countries, there are initiatives that are looking at battery electric planes, but that technology seems much less promising.
How Does It Work?
In conventional aircraft, fuel is stored in the wings of the plane. In the HAPPS plane, the hydrogen cells will be kept near the tail. The hydrogen is then transported to the engine and then converted to electricity. This is easier said than done. Transporting hydrogen through fuel lines is complex. The Dutch and European aviation authorities are also involved in the project. A plane using such a novel means of propulsion needs to be certified. The fact that it is built into an existing aircraft increases the chances of certification.
The system should be ready for lab tests in 2025, and the consortium aims to start flying the first passengers in 2028. Zero emission planes will substantially impact the carbon footprint of the passenger and air freight industries. I’m proud that this system is being developed in the Netherlands, the birthing ground of the famous Fokker aircraft.