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United takes next step toward commercial hydrogen flight

US airline company United Airlines has taken an equity stake in UK based hydrogen-electric aviation specialist ZeroAvia.  

The deal - part of United’s push to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - makes it the largest airliner to invest in hydrogen-electric engines for regional aircraft.

Photo taken ahead of ZeroAvia's maiden hydrogen electric flight in September 2020. Image: Zero Avia

United expects to buy up to 100 of the ZeroAvia’s ZA2000-RJ hydrogen-electric engines which could be retrofitted to existing aircraft as early as 2028. According to a company statement one potential use is on its CRJ-550, 50-seater aircraft.

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

The ZA2000-RJ is expected to be used in pairs as a new power source for existing regional aircraft. Under the agreement with United Airlines Ventures, United will pursue a conditional purchase agreement for 50 ZeroAvia ZA2000-RJ engines, with an option for 50 more, enough for up to 50 twin-engine aircraft which would be operated by United Express partners once they are fully developed and certified by regulators as soon as 2028.

“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 CEO Scott Kirby.

Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO and of ZeroAvia said: ““This support by United, alongside our other forward-thinking partners, demonstrates the importance of hydrogen-electric propulsion in the future of sustainable flight. The United Express routes powered by hydrogen-electric aircraft will be enabling large numbers of passengers to take zero-emission flights well within this decade.”

ZeroAvia is accelerating development of its ZA2000 engine and will soon begin ground tests of its ZA600 in a 19-seat aircraft, with the aim of entering commercial service with this smaller engine by 2024. ZeroAvia’s roadmap calls for it to develop hydrogen-electric propulsion for progressively larger aircraft.

The company completed the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered flight of a commercial-grade aircraft in September 2020 from its R&D base at Cranfield airport in the UK.

In a separate development, ZeroAvia and De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited today (December 15 2021) announced that they have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to develop a line-fit and retrofit program for De Havilland Canada’s aircraft using hydrogen-electric propulsion in new and in-service aircraft.

As part of the MOU, De Havilland Canada will be issued options to purchase 50 ZeroAvia hydrogen-electric engines. These options will be confirmed once a definitive agreement has been completed between De Havilland Canada and ZeroAvia.

As part of the program, ZeroAvia will develop a flight demonstrator, with De Havilland Canada’s support, using a Dash 8-400 aircraft to aid certification and showcase the operational and commercial potential of the 2MW+ powertrain (ZA2000) engine.