American Airlines has become the latest high-profile backer of hydrogen propulsion pioneer ZeroAvia, announcing an investment in the company and signing an MoU to acquire up to 100 zero-emission ZA2000-RJ hydrogen-electric engines to retrofit regional jets. The ZeroAvia announcement comes shortly after a five-year commitment by American to purchase 500 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from producer Gevo and the airline taking delivery of the first-ever batch of CORSIA-certified SAF from Neste. The new partnership with American extends a recent run of significant deals for ZeroAvia, as it progresses three hydrogen-electric powertrain concepts and the Hydrogen Airport Refueling Ecosystem, reports Tony Harrington. These include agreements with US regional airline Ravn Alaska, MONTE, MHIRJ, Otto Aviation, Shell, Edmonton International Airport and PowerCell.
Commenting on the deal with American, ZeroAvia CEO Val Miftakhov said: “Having support from the world’s largest airline is a strong indication of the progress we’re making on the development of hydrogen-electric, zero-emission flight.” Responded American’s CFO, Derek Kerr: “Our investment in ZeroAvia’s emerging hydrogen-electric engine technology has the potential to play a key role in the future of sustainable aviation.”
ZeroAvia is one of the fastest-moving players in the aviation industry’s drive to decarbonise operations, with one Dornier 228 testbed at work in the UK and a second soon to take flight in the US. The company’s hydrogen-electric engine projects, to convert existing fossil-fuelled aircraft to zero-emission power, have already attracted investors including British Airways and its parent, International Airlines Group, plus Alaska Airlines and the world’s third-largest carrier, United, which has also announced orders for up to 100 ZA2000-RJ engines. American’s investment in ZeroAvia, the terms of which have not been disclosed, and its plan to re-engine regional jets, further highlights the growing attraction of converting existing aircraft to new propulsion systems as an express path to low-or-no emission flight.
Testing is well advanced on the prototype of ZeroAvia’s first hydrogen propulsion system, the ZA600, which is designed to power 10-20 seat aircraft, with certification expected in 2024. Its second programme, the ZA2000, will power 40-90 seat turboprop airliners, typically re-engined De Havilland Canada and European ATR models, and the ZA2000-RJ, supported by United and now American, is initially targeting CRJ regional jets, which are operated by both of the US giants. “We are excited to contribute to this industry development and look forward to exploring how these engines can support the future of our airline as we build American Airlines to thrive forever,” said American’s Kerr.
During the recent Farnborough Airshow, Ravn Alaska announced orders for 30 ZA2000 powertrains to convert its fleet of De Havilland Q100 and Q300 turboprop aircraft, while in Saudi Arabia, The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) revealed plans to introduce up to 30 zero-emission Cessna Caravan seaplanes to serve a new luxury eco-tourism region and signed an MoU with ZeroAvia to explore retrofitting the planes. “As we gear up to welcome our first guests early next year, the topic of smart and sustainable mobility is a hot one,” said Andreas Flourou, Executive Director, Operations – Mobility at TRSDC. “ZeroAvia is a leader in supplying zero-emission aircraft and we’re excited to bring them on board as a valuable partner as we seek to create the world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism destination.”
These deals closely followed an announcement by UK-based MONTE Aircraft Leasing of an order for up to 100 ZeroAvia ZA600 powertrains to convert new or existing Cessna Caravans, DHC-6 Twin Otters, Dornier 228s and HAL-228s from 2024, and a collaboration with Otto Aviation to power the Celera, a new, low-drag, novel-shaped aircraft capable of seating up to 19 passengers.
“The majority of our commercial deals to date have focused on retrofit and line-fit for existing airframes, which is essential to deliver zero-emission flight to market as quickly as possible,” said ZeroAvia’s Miftakhov. “However, efficiency gains from new airframe designs can expand the impact of zero-emission aviation. We are pleased to collaborate with innovators like Otto Aviation, bringing cutting-edge clean sheet designs to market as we can optimise the hydrogen-electric propulsion system for those designs.”
In another collaboration to help expedite development of its zero emission powertrains, ZeroAvia recently expanded an existing agreement with MHI RJ Aviation Group (MHIRJ), formed in 2020 when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries acquired Canada’s CRJ regional jet programme. MHIRJ will support ZeroAvia with engineering services, aircraft integration and CRJ expertise in the conversion to hydrogen propulsion of this family of 50-100 seat jets, the same types which United and American are planning to re-engine with ZA2000-RJ engines.
To help optimise the performance of its powertrains, ZeroAvia has announced an MoU with hydrogen fuel stack manufacturer PowerCell Sweden for joint development and delivery of at least 5,000 optimised Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel stacks between 2024 and 2028. PowerCell will co-locate with ZeroAvia in the UK to modify hydrogen fuel stacks for use in aircraft, with final agreement on the collaboration expected in the third quarter of this year.
As well as new partnerships to progress its powerplants, ZeroAvia has also formed alliances to help expedite the delivery of hydrogen, not only for aircraft use but also for broader deployment at airports.
Strategic investor Shell will design and build two commercial-scale mobile refuellers to be used at ZeroAvia’s research and development plant in Hollister, California, and will provide compressed, low-carbon hydrogen at that plant and other western US locations to support ZeroAvia’s proving flight programme with its second Dornier 228 testbed. The Shell deal will also help to progress ZeroAvia’s Hydrogen Airport Refueling System (HARE).
“We believe ZeroAvia’s technology is a viable option, and this agreement will allow us to demonstrate successful provision of low-carbon hydrogen supply while supporting development of codes, standards, and refuelling protocols for hydrogen-powered aviation,” said Shell’s GM Hydrogen, Oliver Bishop.
Meanwhile, in Canada, ZeroAvia has just partnered with Edmonton International Airport (EIA) to investigate the infrastructure required to deliver hydrogen not only for aircraft, but also to help to decarbonise ground operations. EIA and ZeroAvia will collaborate to develop hydrogen infrastructure at both Edmonton’s main airport and Villeneuve Airport, a general aviation facility. The companies will conduct a pilot programme to fuel a demonstrator aircraft and other airport operations, and will work towards establishing some of the world’s first hydrogen-powered air routes. Initially, they will use gaseous hydrogen as a fuel, while investigating a step-up to liquid hydrogen, which is needed for aircraft with more than 50 seats.
American’s new investment in ZeroAvia follows the announcement during Farnborough of $30 million in fresh capital from International Airlines Group, the parent of carriers including British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and LEVEL. Barclays Sustainable Impact Capital, Saudi Arabia’s hydrogen-based future city project, NEOM, and the multi-stage impact technology fund AENU also participated in the latest fundraising.
Image: American Airlines aims to retrofit its regional jets with ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-electric ZA2000-RJ powertrain