UAL Invests in ZeroAvia, Eyes Hydrogen Conversion Kit for RJs

 - December 13, 2021, 12:37 PM
United Airlines could convert up to 50 CRJ500s to hydrogen-electric power. (Image: United Airlines)

United Airlines on Monday joined Alaska Airlines in committing to a new, $35 million round of capital investment in ZeroAvia's hydrogen-electric propulsion system, bringing total financing for the project to $115 million. The new equity stake for United gives the Chicago-based airline rights to buy up to 100 of the zero-emission ZA-2000RJ powertrains, which could power United Express regional jets by 2028.

United specified 50-seat Bombardier CRJ550 regional jets as “one potential use” for the propulsion system. Using the same airframe as the 70-seat CRJ700, the CRJ550 features a two-class cabin that holds 20 fewer passenger seats. United Express affiliate GoJet, which served as the CRJ550 program’s launch customer in 2019, has converted more than 50 of its CRJ700s to the 50-seat configuration.

Bombardier has since ceased production of its regional airliner family and exited the commercial aviation sector. In June 2020, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries acquired the CRJ program and now provides aftermarket support to some 1,300 of the twinjets in service worldwide. In October, the Japanese group's MHI RJ Aviation Group announced a planned partnership with ZeroAvia but declined to confirm whether it will involve converting the CRJs to hydrogen power. 

“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,” said United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. “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.”

Under the agreement with United Airlines Ventures, United will pursue a conditional purchase agreement for 50 ZeroAvia ZA2000-RJ engines and an option for 50 more, enough to power up to 50 twin-engine aircraft that one or more United Express partners would operate.

ZeroAvia plans to soon begin ground tests of its smaller ZA600 engine in a 19-seat aircraft under a schedule that calls for entry into commercial service in 2024. It now has secured a pair of Dornier 228 twin-turboprop aircraft to use as testbeds for the 600-kW hydrogen-fuel-cell-based powertrain and is preparing to start flight testing in the UK.

The company has set an initial target for a 500-mile range in a 10- to 20-seat aircraft used for commercial passenger transport, package delivery, agriculture, among other applications. The latest funding round targets the next segment of 40- to 80-seat aircraft, including turboprops by 2026 and regional jets by 2028. 

Larger airliners, like the CRJ family, would need between 2MW and 5MW of power, which is why ZeroAvia has launched development of the larger ZA2000-RJ powertrain. On the CRJ, it would replace the aircraft's existing GE Aviation CF-34 turbofans, with the conversion being covered by a supplemental type certificate under Part 33 rules.

Over the past few weeks, ZeroAvia has made significant progress towards achieving its goal of zero-emission aviation with commercial momentum through partnerships with Alaska Airlines, Rose Cay, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, ASL Aviation Holdings, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Regional Jet division, and Rotterdam the Hague Airport.

Along with United and Alaska Airlines, other investors include Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, AP Ventures, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Horizons Ventures, Summa Equity, and Shell Ventures. ZeroAvia is competing with fellow California-based start-up Universal Hydrogen, which also has secured significant funding for its plans to convert existing regional airliners, including the Dash 8 and the ATR 42/72. Last week, U.S.-based Connect Airlines said it will convert up to 24 Dash 8-300s with Universal's technology.