It is unlike anything seen on today’s runways: the “pod” configuration — one of several being conceptualized as part of ongoing R&D on the ZEROe concept aircraft— features a series of stand-alone propulsion systems based on hydrogen fuel cell technology. Credit: Airbus.

Aerospace giant Airbus is one step closer to developing an eco-friendly hydrogen-powered concept aircraft with the release of its new, innovative ZEROe design.

Airbus engineers have devised a new configuration that consists of six eight-bladed “pods” mounted beneath the aircraft wing, AINonline reported.

One of several configurations under consideration as part of Airbus’s ongoing R&D, the design features a series of standalone propulsion systems based on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Studies now center on determining to what extent the pod configuration, among others, could apply to large commercial aircraft, AINonline reported.

“The pod configuration is essentially a distributed fuel cell propulsion system that delivers thrust to the aircraft via six propulsors arranged along the wing,” explained Matthieu Thomas, ZEROe aircraft lead architect.

“Hydrogen fuel cells have very different design considerations, so we knew we had to come up with a unique approach.”          

The pod’s eight-bladed propellers, made of composite materials, are shaped to provide added thrust during the takeoff and climb-out phases of flight for the ZEROe. The advanced airfoil design is expected to lead to improved efficiency and performance. Credit: Airbus.

Smaller experimental hydrogen aircraft, carrying up to 20 seats, can rely on a traditional fixed-wing configuration with two propellers. But more passenger capacity and longer range require another solution, AINonline reported.

The pod configuration represents one possible way to create enough scale to power larger aircraft. 

Each pod would consist of a propeller, electric motors, fuel cells, power electronics, a liquid hydrogen tank, a cooling system, and a set of auxiliary equipment. The design uses hydrogen and air supplied to the fuel cells to generate electric current.

Power electronics convert the current to power the electric motors, which, in turn, rotate the motor shaft and turn the propeller, AINonline reported.

Airbus calls the pod configuration’s removable fixtures a “striking feature” that allows disassembly and reassembly in “record time,” allowing for rapid maintenance and, potentially, hydrogen refueling at airports.

Airbus plans to publish a patent application for the pod configuration by the end of the year, 18 months after its initial submission.

The company said that it expects to submit several more patent applications over the coming months and years as R&D continues on the ZEROe program. Airbus plans to render a final decision on which configuration it launches first in 2025.