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United Airlines invests in hydrogen-fueled engines for regional aircraft

14 December 2021 Amena Saiyid

United Airlines has become the largest airline in the world to invest in hydrogen-fueled electric engines that manufacturer ZeroAvia is developing for regional aircraft that can carry fewer than 100 passengers.

The Chicago-based airline's announcement came less than a fortnight after it demonstrated that sustainable aviation fuels made from woody waste and renewable feedstock can be used in commercial airplanes without any operational problems.

Through a new equity stake in ZeroAvia, United said it had agreed to a conditional purchase of 100 aircraft engines known as ZA2000. These engines would be powered by 100% hydrogen fuel cells and capable of producing between 2,000 and 5,000 kilowatts of power with a 500-mile range.

Hydrogen-electric engines use electricity created by a chemical reaction in a fuel cell to power an electric motor instead of burning a fossil fuel. Because no fuel is burned, there are no climate-harming emissions or carbon released into the atmosphere when the engines operate.

United's aim is to retrofit its regional jet fleet with ZeroAvia's hydrogen powertrains as early as 2028, placing it squarely on its net-zero path. This includes plans to halve its carbon intensity compared with 2019 by 2035.

Promising path to net-zero

"Hydrogen-electric engines are one of the most promising paths to zero-emission air travel for smaller aircraft, and this investment will keep United out in front on this important emerging technology," Scott Kirby, CEO of United, said in a statement 13 December.

The aviation sector remains the largest source of unregulated transportation CO2 releases at 12%. The US itself is the leading GHG emitter from this source, responsible for a quarter of global emissions from this sector.

Most of the United's fleet of more than 800 aircraft consist of regional aircraft. As the regional branch of the United Airlines, United Express runs six individually owned regional airlines that operate more than 550 aircraft for short- and medium-haul feeder flights.

The airline said it is determined to reach its net-zero goal through use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and innovative aircraft engine technology such as the one ZeroAvia is pioneering.

Largest airline to invest in ZeroAvia

United is the largest airline in terms of fleet size to date to invest in ZeroAvia's hydrogen aviation technology, though not the first.

According to Statista, United has a fleet size of 831 aircraft and is ranked second behind American Airlines.

Ranked 15th, British Airways was among ZeroAvia's initial investors along with the UK government, Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Amazon Climate Pledge, and Shell Ventures. ZeroAvia raised $37.7 million to demonstrate its hydrogen fuel cell-powered engine (ZA600) in a 19-state passenger plane by 2024.

Alaska Airlines, which is ranked eighth in terms of fleet size, joined ZeroAvia's group of investors in October. At the time, Alaska also announced plans to secure options for retrofitting its regional jet fleet with ZeroAvia's powertrains, starting with Q400 aircraft that can carry up to 80 passengers.

To date, ZeroAvia said it has raised $115 million to demonstrate its technology on regional aircraft with engines of various sizes.

Advancing sustainability

United's Kirby said the airline continues to look for opportunities to "not only advance our own sustainability initiatives but also identify and help technologies and solutions that the entire industry can adopt."

On 1 December, United became the first airline to demonstrate that a Boeing 737-MAX can run on 100% SAF without any operational problems. The plane, which transported 100 passengers between Chicago O'Hare Airport and Washington Reagan National Airport, had one of its two engines running on 100% SAF, which has a much lower carbon footprint than regular jet fuel.

SAF is made from renewable sources such as used cooking oil, municipal waste, and woody biomass.

United is part of the US airline trade group Airlines4America that pledged in September to meet a White House goal of making 3 billion gallons of SAF available to its airlines by 2030.

In support of that goal, United announced it would partner with North Carolina-based Honeywell to invest in Alder Fuels, a clean tech company seeking to produce SAF from forest and crop waste. Under this partnership with Honeywell, United said it will obtain 1.5 billion gallons of SAF from Alder Fuels over a 20-year period.

The International Renewable Energy Agency in July projected that 100 billion liters of SAF will be needed by 2050, but current production of about 140 million liters in 2019 was still very limited and is "considerably less than 0.1% of the current global jet fuel consumption."

Posted 14 December 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate and Energy Research Analyst

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