A United Airlines airplane shortly after take off from Madrid, Spain, on September 25, 2021.
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United Airlines has taken an equity stake in ZeroAvia, a firm focused on powering electric motors by utilizing hydrogen fuel cells.
Under the deal, United said it expects to purchase up to 100 of ZeroAvia’s ZA2000-RJ — an engine it described as zero-emission and 100% hydrogen-electric.
The airline said the engine was “expected to be used in pairs as a new power source for existing regional aircraft.”
United said it plans to pursue a conditional purchase agreement for 50 of the engines, with an option for 50 more. The tech could be retrofitted to aircraft from 2028, it added.
In a statement issued Monday, United CEO Scott Kirby said hydrogen-electric engines were “one of the most promising paths to zero-emission air travel for smaller aircraft.”
In a separate announcement, ZeroAvia said it had raised $35 million in funding. Alongside United, others taking part in the funding round include Alaska Air Group, whose investment was previously announced.
In total, ZeroAvia says it has attracted $115 million of investment from a range of stakeholders including Shell Ventures, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
As concerns about sustainability and the environment mount — the World Wildlife Fund describes air travel as “the most carbon intensive activity an individual can make” — discussions around aviation are increasingly focused on how new tech and ideas could cut its environmental footprint.
Over the last few years, a number of companies have sought to develop plans and concepts related to low and zero-emission aviation.
Earlier this year, Rolls-Royce’s first all-electric aircraft completed its maiden flight, taking to the skies in the U.K. for around 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in Sept. 2020, a hydrogen fuel-cell plane from ZeroAvia undertook its first flight. The same month saw Airbus release details of three hydrogen-fueled concept planes, with the European aerospace giant claiming they could enter service by 2035.
While there is excitement in some quarters regarding the potential of new, lower-emission forms of aviation, some within the industry are circumspect about how such innovations will develop over the coming years.
“I think … we should be honest again,” he said. “Certainly, for the next decade … I don’t think you’re going to see any — there’s no technology out there that’s going to replace … carbon, jet aviation.”
“I don’t see the arrival of … hydrogen fuels, I don’t see the arrival of sustainable fuels, I don’t see the arrival of electric propulsion systems, certainly not before 2030,” he added.