United Airlines Ventures (UAV), the United Airlines subsidiary formed last year to invest in start-ups, new technologies and sustainability concepts, and Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (OLCV), a similar business, which is part of the global energy group Occidental (Oxy), have come together to work with US biotechnology company Cemvita Factory to commercialise a new process which converts carbon dioxide and synthetic microbes into sustainable aviation fuel. UAV has also joined OLCV as an investor in Houston-based Cemvita Factory, which is developing a synthetic biology process which transforms CO2 into chemicals and fossil-free fuels, including SAF. The initiative adds to a growing list of investments by United in sustainable fuels, new propulsion systems and carbon capture and sequestration, as it seeks to decarbonise its operations without using offsets, reports Tony Harrington.
“We have been consistent in leading the airline industry with bold action when it comes to fighting climate change,” said Michael Leskinen, President of UAV. “That starts with building an ecosystem around companies like Cemvita Factory to create and commercialise new SAF technologies.”
Since 2016, when it began to use SAF regularly in its scheduled operations, United has purchased large volumes of the fuel and invested in SAF producers. Having already invested in Fulcrum BioEnergy, from which it has an option to buy up to 900 million gallons (3.4 billion litres) of SAF, the airline stepped up its activities last September by investing in Alder Fuels, along with a commitment to purchase 5 billion gallons (18.9 billion litres).
In December, United became the first airline to operate a passenger flight with one of the two engines powered by 100% SAF. With commercial flights limited to a maximum of 50% SAF, the Boeing 737 MAX-8 flight from Chicago O’Hare to Washington DC’s Reagan Airport was used to help press the case for approval of 100% SAF flights.
Through their new partnership, UAV and OLCV will fund development work by Cemvita Factory to turn carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons for SAF. Subject to Cemvita’s achievement of performance targets, UAV and OLCV will establish a joint venture to commercialise the process by funding projects including pilot and demonstration plants and engineering studies. They will also finance construction of, and operate, SAF plants.
The collaboration comes as global demand for SAF begins to surge, parallel with growing concerns about insufficient supply to meet requirements. “This is truly a global imperative, and this cooperation with Oxy Low Carbon Ventures reflects our dedication to building relationships across sectors, and working with companies aligned with our sustainability goals,” said Leskinen.
Richard Jackson, Oxy’s President, Operations, US Onshore Resources and Carbon Management, added: “The use of SAF is a promising approach that we believe can significantly reduce global emissions from aviation and further decarbonisation initiatives to combat climate change. We are eager to collaborate with United and Cemvita to accelerate SAF innovation to reach commercial scale.” As well as investing in the development of low carbon fuels and products, OLCV also invests in sequestration services which support carbon capture projects.
Founded in 2017, Cemvita Factory first received equity investment from OLCV in 2019, which was followed in 2021 with a plan by the two to develop a bio-ethylene pilot plant. Cemvita said it was “on a mission to create a sustainable future by transforming carbon dioxide into value-added products”, using biomimicry of natural processes to produce chemicals and polymers in sustainable ways. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Moji Karimi, commented: “We commend United Airlines for being a leader in the airline industry’s decarbonisation efforts and are proud to work once again with OLCV to provide these solutions on a broader scale.”
In addition to SAF supplies and suppliers, UAV has invested in other technologies including carbon capture, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional airliners and urban air mobility. In 2020, United committed to invest in another Oxy division, 1PointFive, which specialises in direct air capture, carbon capture and sequestration technology, priority pathways for the airline in its quest to decarbonise.
In February last year, United announced an agreement to work with Archer Aviation to help expedite the development and production of its proposed electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, or air taxi. This was followed in July by a partnership with regional partner Mesa Airlines and Breakthrough Energy Ventures to invest in Swedish start-up Heart Aerospace, which is developing the 19-seat ES-19 electric airliner for regional operations. Subject to the plane meeting performance goals, United and Mesa have committed to acquire up to 200 of the aircraft.
United has also bet on hydrogen propulsion, investing in the hydrogen-electric engine company ZeroAvia and announcing conditional purchase orders for up 50 of its new ZA2000-RJ engines, with options for another 50, which, subject to certification, could be used by 2028 to re-engine CRJ-500 regional jets operated by United Express.
Photo: United Airlines