United Airlines invested in ZeroAvia, the company developing hydrogen-electric retrofit kits for ever-bigger existing commercial aircraft.
We have previously seen the efforts of the hydrogen-electric startup ZeroAvia. Last year, it became the first company to fly a hydrogen-electric aircraft. It has ambitious plans and a very aggressive development timeline, as it scales up its designs. But it has also hit some obstacles – most notably the crash-landing of its first test aircraft.
On the positive side, ZeroAvia has an impressive number of backers, and today United joined that list. The airline’s financial arm took an equity stake in ZeroAvia and plans to buy hydrogen retrofit kits for 50 aircraft. This follows the recent partnership between ZeroAvia and Alaska Airlines. But United’s plans call for bigger aircraft.
Third In Line?
Alaska is contributing a Q400, for conversion to hydrogen-electric power. This will follow work on two 19-seat Dornier 228s, one in Britain, the other in the US. United will have to wait for the next step up from Alaska’s with ZeroAvia retrofitting its CRJ-550s. This aircraft is essentially a CRJ-700, but with a less dense configuration and a lower gross weight, for 50 passengers. Developed to satisfy the related Scope Clause rules, the type has proven quite popular with passengers.
Despite being essentially third in line after smaller aircraft, United expects to get its ZeroAvia engine conversions by 2028. The two companies released a picture, showing a modified CRJ-500. Instead of its CF34 turbofans, the image shows the aircraft in a twin pusher-prop configuration. This seems to follow a similar principle with Embraer’s recent renewable energy concepts. Except that it’s a retrofit of an existing aircraft, of course.
ZeroAvia will need to develop a 2-to-5-megawatt powertrain, to power the United aircraft. The company calls this the “ZA2000-RJ”, the suffix standing for “Regional Jet”. United is pursuing a conditional agreement for 50 of these engines, with an option for 50 more. So it could upgrade 25+25 CRJ-550s. The announcement doesn’t dive into what “conditional” means. But in general, such agreements on future projects involve performance clauses.
United – Largest Airline Backer For ZeroAvia
In the airline’s release on its ZeroAvia partnership, Scott Kirby, United Airlines CEO, said:
“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. United 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.”
United boasts that its tie-up with ZeroAvia makes it the largest airline to invest in hydrogen-electric zero-emission technology. There are still many challenges in this field, both in terms of the aircraft and their engines and in terms of the infrastructure and supply of hydrogen. But we have seen many giants working on hydrogen-electric technology, including Airbus.
The European manufacturer doesn’t quite have ZeroAvia’s timeline, however. But one way or another, we should see more developments in the field, over the next decade.