United Airlines Backs ZeroAvia’s Hydrogen-Powered CRJ

United Airlines and Zeroavia
United’s Bombardier-built 50-seat CRJ-550s could be converted to zero-emissions hydrogen-electric propulsion.
Credit: ZeroAvia

The decarbonization of regional aviation continues to gather pace, with United Airlines investing in hydrogen-electric propulsion developer ZeroAvia. 

The agreement is expected to lead to the retrofit of United’s Bombardier CRJ-550 50-seat regional jets with the startup’s hydrogen fuel-cell powertrains.

United and its regional affiliate Mesa Airlines have already made similar investment and order deals in 2021 with Swedish startup Heart Aerospace for its all-electric 19-seater and with Archer Aviation for its four-passenger electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxi.

Alaska Air Group has joined with United in ZeroAvia’s latest $35 million funding round, which takes the total raised so far by the U.S./UK startup to $115 million. Existing investors including Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Shell Ventures also participated.

The new funds will help develop the startup’s 2-5-megawatt ZA2000 zero-emissions powertrain. The agreement with United anticipates an order for 50 ZA2000-RJ hydrogen-electric engines, with an option for 50 more. United plans to retrofit up to 50 of its CRJ-550s beginning as soon as 2028.

Alaska in November partnered with ZeroAvia to develop the ZA2000 liquid-hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain for retrofit to the 76-seat De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 regional turboprop. That agreement anticipates delivery of at least 50 propulsion systems as early as 2026.

The former Bombardier CRJ business was acquired by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) in June 2020. ZeroAvia has partnered with Mitsubishi’s CRJ support division, Montreal-based MHI RJ Aviation, to develop hydrogen-electric propulsion for the regional jets.

A concept image released by ZeroAvia shows the CRJ’s two aft-mounted GE CF34 turbofan engines replaced by pusher propellers in slim nacelles. Liquid hydrogen tanks are installed in the aft fuselage.

ZeroAvia has also signed an agreement with Irish cargo airline ASL Aviation Holdings to retrofit the ATR 72 freighter with ZA2000 hydrogen-electric engines. The project could lead to an order to convert up to 10 of ASL’s ATR 72s for service starting in 2026. 

The startup initially is developing the 600-kW ZA600 pressurized-hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain for 10-20-seat aircraft. A 19-passenger Dornier 228 regional turboprop is being modified to a propulsion testbed in the UK and testing is planned to begin “in the coming weeks,” CEO Val Miftakhov said. 

ZeroAvia has partnered with India’s Hindustan Aeronautics, which manufacturers new Do 228 airframes, to develop the supplemental type certificate for the conversion, with the retrofit planned to be in the market in 2024. A ground demonstration for the larger ZA2000 is planned for 2022.

The startup additionally has announced a collaboration with U.S. investment company Rose Cay to finance the acquisition and conversion of stored aircraft for lease to customers and the development of airport infrastructure to ensure hydrogen availability.

Another startup, Universal Hydrogen, is developing 2-megawatt fuel-cell propulsion retrofits for the ATR 42/72 and De Havilland Canada Dash 8-200/300 regional turboprops, with entry into service planned for 2025. And Deutsche Aircraft, which is returning the Dornier 328 to service as the 40-seat 328eco, is working with German fuel-cell propulsion specialist H2Fly to build a hydrogen-fueled demonstrator.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.