United Airlines wants to power some of its regional jets with hydrogen by the end of the decade. The company announced a deal with ZeroAvia to purchase up to 100 of the new zero-emission, 100% hydrogen-electric engines (ZA2000-RJ). The engine could be retrofit to existing United Express aircraft as early 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.– Scott Kirby, CEO of United
The ZA2000-RJ is expected to be used in pairs as a new power source for existing regional aircraft. The hydrogen-electric engine uses a chemical reaction in a fuel cell to generate electricity that can drive the propulsion system.
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. This translates to potentially 50 twin-engine aircraft which could be operated by United Express partners once they are fully developed and certified by regulators. ZeroAvia anticipates that could come as soon as 2028.
ZeroAvia also announced it will accelerate development of the ZA2000-RJ as part of the news. That’s helped along by United taking an equity stake as part of the deal.
“This support by United, alongside our other forward-thinking partners, demonstrates the importance of hydrogen-electric propulsion in the future of sustainable flight,” said Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO and of ZeroAvia. “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.”
United suggests the new engines could replace the GE CF34s that power its CRJ550s today. Choosing to go after the larger RJ engines rather than the CRJ200/ERJ145 market makes some sense given the age of the latter and their generally shrinking presence in active use. But delivering the 50% greater thrust needed to power the larger RJs does add complexity to the project.
Should it prove successful adapting it to the ERJ-170/175 family should be a relatively small transition, further extending the investment.
And that’s not the only problem the hydrogen-electric path for ZeroAvia, United, or the rest of the industry.
Generating so-called “green” hydrogen, derived from non-carbon intensive activities is another impediment to this proving a viable solution. So, too, is the potential structural changes necessary on the aircraft to support the transition away from Jet-A as the energy source.
And ZeroAvia still does not have a certified version of any of its hydrogen powerplants. But it will.
The company operated a test flight on a Piper-M in 2020. It also plans to begin ground testing of the ZA600, designed to power a 19-seat commercial aircraft, in the weeks ahead.
And getting the financial (and marketing) capital of United to help drive the process certainly doesn’t hurt either.
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