US start-up ZeroAvia has won a significant new customer and investor in United Airlines. Through its subsidiary United Airlines Ventures, the airline will invest $35 million in equity in ZeroAvia. It has also signed a conditional purchase agreement for fifty hydrogen engines plus fifty options. United intends to use these engines on its Mitsubishi CRJ-550 regional fleet by 2028. United eyes hydrogen CRJ with ZeroAvia investment.

United hails the announcement as another step towards reaching its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. It is already heavily investing in the purchase of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). In July, it announced an investment in Swedish start-up Heart Aerospace plus a conditional purchase agreement for 100 of the 19-seater electric regional aircraft. Its investment in ZeroAvia confirms its willingness to invest in an even more disruptive technology through hydrogen-powered engines.

ZeroAvia has been developing and flight testing its first hydrogen engine since 2018. Its Piper Matrix did the first flight at just 1.000 feet in February 2019 in the US, followed by the first flight of the six-seater Piper Malibu with a 250 kW powerplant in September 2020 in the UK. The aircraft was damaged beyond report during a landing incident in April this year. ZeroAvia now is busy preparing the first of two 19-seater Dornier Do-228s with two ZA600 motors with 600 kW power for the first flight in 2023. The company targets certification in 2024.

Whereas its HiFlyer II program targets 10-20 seaters, the engines that United wants to order are of another size as they need to propel a 50-seater. The ZA2000-RJ has an output of two megawatts, with a growth potential of up to five megawatts. These are electric motors, as ZeroAvia follows the principle of using hydrogen to convert it into electricity, which then powers the electric motors.

CRJ conversion is part of agreement with MHI RJ

In October, ZeroAvia announced an agreement with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries RJ Aviation Group or MHI RJ for short, which now owns the intellectual property of the Bombardier CRJ program. The Montreal-based subsidiary of Mitsubishi will seek a supplemental type certificate for the ZA2000-RJ powered CRJ regional jet family with the hydrogen infrastructure on board by 2026/2027.

The hydrogen program with MHI RJ covers new CRJs as well as the conversion of existing aircraft, which is exactly what United Airlines has in mind. The airline will retire most of its oldest CRJ200s of which it has 179, but the seventy younger CRJ700s that are operated by Gojet Airlines on behalf of United Express are slightly younger. United ordered 54 CRJ550s in 2019, which have ten First, twenty Economy Plus, and twenty Economy seats, which all seem likely candidates for future conversion.

The conversion strategy of United is an interesting one. Will the airline expand this to include more types or will there always be a need for new-generation aircraft? What does it mean for the chances of Embraer to get any United orders for its new turboprop, which will be launched next year but for the foreseeable future seems to have engines running of SAFs?

ZeroAvia will develop a three-megawatt version of the ZA2000 for a power system on the De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 with 76 seats in partnership with Alaska Airlines. The airline said in October that it has secured options for up to fifty conversion kits.

With the $35 million equity investment from United, ZeroAvia says it has now raised $115 million in investments from partners like Alaska, Shell, Horizon Ventures, AP Ventures, Amazon, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Summa Equity. 

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