21 May 2024

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

United Airlines launches $100 million fund dedicated to sustainable aviation fuel investment

United Airlines, the world’s third largest carrier, has created a dedicated investment vehicle to support start-up businesses focused on sustainable aviation fuel. The United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight Fund is designed to help accelerate research, production and technologies linked to SAF, the main and most available means to reduce flight carbon emissions. The fund has been launched with more than $100 million in investments from Boeing, GE Aerospace, aero technology company Honeywell and global finance house JP Morgan Chase, as well as Air Canada, a key member, with United, of the Star Alliance airline group. United has also refined its booking website and app to show customers the estimated carbon footprint of flights they are considering and provide options for them to contribute to the new fund.

“This is unique,” commented Scott Kirby, United’s CEO, on the Sustainable Flight Fund. “It’s not about offsets or things that are just greenwashing. We’re creating a system that drives investment to build a new industry around sustainable aviation fuel, essentially from scratch. That’s the only way we can actually decarbonise aviation.”  

United says it aims to be “100% green” by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions “100% by 2050”, without the use of conventional carbon offsets, which Kirby has long rejected as ineffective in cutting aviation’s carbon emissions.

The airline’s technology investment vehicle, United Airlines Ventures (UAV), has backed 11 companies including emerging SAF producers, manufacturers of zero emission aircraft or propulsion systems, and a battery business focused on electrifying airport ground equipment and future electric aircraft.

Some SAF-related investments will be moved from UAV to the new platform to kick-start its portfolio. United has committed to the future production of 3 billion gallons of SAF, “the most of any airline in the world,” and equivalent to the 2030 baseline production goal set by the US government in its SAF Grand Challenge programme.

“United has already made investments in or signed purchase agreements with companies using a variety of ingredients and technologies to produce SAF, including feedstocks like ethanol, animal by-products, forestry and crop waste, and municipal waste, as well as early-stage, promising technologies like synthetic biology and power-to-liquids,” the airline said. “The UAV Sustainable Flight Fund is open to investment by corporations across industries and the fund will prioritise investment in new technology, advanced fuel sources and proven producers, all in an effort to scale the supply of SAF.”

UAV has already supported five emergent SAF producers: Fulcrum Bioenergy, which is converting landfill waste to fuel; Alder Fuels, which will use biomass feedstock; Cemvita and Dimensional Energy, which will convert carbon dioxide to SAF; and Next Renewable Fuels, which recycles organic waste including used cooking oil.

As well as inviting more corporations to participate in the new investment fund, United is also looking to its passengers for support, becoming the first US carrier to highlight the indicative carbon footprint of every flight searched on the airline’s website or booking app, and providing the option for customers to contribute to the SAF fund as part of the booking process, with contribution levels set at $1.00, a default price of $3.50, and $7.00.

“Green shading will indicate a lower-carbon option on a per-economy seat passenger basis in a customer’s chosen itinerary,” the airline explained. “A flight’s carbon footprint is measured in kg CO2e – kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent – and United’s estimates, which could differ from actual flight emissions, are based on aircraft type, flying time, seat capacity and the number of people and cargo on a given flight.

“The default option for customer contributions is set at $3.50 to illustrate the potential impact of customer action at scale. If the 152 million people who flew on United in 2022 each contributed just $3.50 to the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, that would be enough to design and build a SAF refinery capable of producing as much as 40 million gallons of alternative fuel annually.”

In addition to SAF producers, UAV has invested in Swedish electric aircraft start-up Heart Aerospace, air taxi manufacturers Archer Aviation and Eve Air Mobility, and hydrogen-electric powertrain manufacturer ZeroAvia, whose prototype engine is now being flight tested in the UK. Late last year, it invested in US-based battery manufacturer Natron Energy, a company with potential to help United electrify airport ground equipment, including airside tractors, and future electric aircraft such as air taxis.  

United also operates the Eco-Skies Alliance, a SAF corporate purchasing programme.

Photo: United Airlines

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