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United’s Battery Investment to Improve Aviation Sustainability

The Airline Grows Its Electric Battery Portfolio with Investment in EPS

  • Electric Power Systems (EPS) modules are a technology that could be compatible with and used to support United’s future decarbonizing investments.
  • United is targeting EPS modules for potential use in the airline’s current ground operations while eyeing an all-electric flight academy in the future.

The Significance of United Airlines’ Latest Battery Investment for the Future of Air Travel

United has announced an investment in Electric Power Systems, a company producing battery technology that could benefit a wide range of aerospace usages. This company doesn’t produce battery cells. Instead, their compatible module technology can be adjusted to support various batteries, enhancing performance and safety. The tech’s versatility could enable United to think about using EPS’s modules for several near-term applications and for its longer-term operations supporting decarbonization. This marks United’s second investment in electric battery technology, the first being sodium-ion battery-maker Natron.

“Typically, we’ve had a clear vision of how to integrate sustainability investments into our operations. What makes EPS’s technology different and exciting is the scope of operational possibilities where we have the option to deploy it today and, in the future, to help electrify and decarbonize our operations,” said United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen. “United’s best roadmap to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, without relying on traditional carbon offsets, is by using every tool at our disposal – that includes the potential use of EPS’s impressive portfolio of electric aircraft powertrain solutions, including high-performance power electronics, and energy storage systems.”

Electric Power Systems is on a mission to revolutionize the aviation industry. They aim to provide a comprehensive battery “ecosystem” for aviation—including the batteries on the aircraft and charging stations on the ground. This well-rounded approach is intended to keep costs low and ensure quick charging without shortening the battery life. 

The crux of electric aviation rests on designing a battery that can store maximum energy with minimum weight. A battery that’s too heavy could make an aircraft economically unfeasible compared to its fossil fuel-powered counterparts.

“We are excited to collaborate with United Airlines Ventures as we continue to advance electric aviation technology,” said Nathan Millecam, CEO of Electric Power Systems. “United’s investment will enable us to scale our operations and expedite the development of our cutting-edge powertrain solutions. By working together, our aim is to revolutionize air travel and build a more sustainable future for the industry.”

Electric Power Systems aims to provide a comprehensive battery “ecosystem” for aviation—including the batteries on the aircraft and charging stations on the ground. Source: United

United’s Electric Vision: Aviate Academy & Ground Equipment 

United is charting a new flight course, eyeing an eco-friendly turn. The airline’s pilot training academy, Aviate, is considering a switch from internal combustion-powered aircraft to electric versions. The powertrain from EPS could take center stage, spearheading propulsion for future electric aircraft concepts. This could start with an electric trainer aircraft and expand to more sizable variants as technology soars. 

Besides aircraft, United’s green initiatives also have their wheels on the ground. With over 12,000 motorized ground equipment pieces in its arsenal, United currently operates about a third of these on electric power. In the pipeline are potential uses for EPS’s battery modules, such as:

  • Charging electric ground equipment
  • Charging anticipated future electric aircraft such as electric air taxis
  • Electrified auxiliary power unit (APU) start products
  • Electrified cold-chain storage product for cargo containers

United’s Salty Battery Investment

  • Natron Energy’s high-performance sodium-ion batteries outperform their lithium-ion counterparts in power density, recharging speed, and safety.
  • United becomes the first major airline to invest in a battery manufacturer based on publicly announced investments.

In November 2022, United Airlines announced a strategic equity investment in Natron Energy. The battery manufacturer’s sodium-ion batteries could help United electrify its airport ground equipment like pushback tractors and operations at the gate. United has made substantial investments in companies developing technology to reduce aircraft emissions, but Natron is the first that has the potential to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint from United’s ground operations.

“United Airlines Ventures was created to identify companies spearheading the next generation of innovative and emissions-reducing technology,” said Michael Leskinen, President of United Airline Ventures. “Out of the gate, we primarily focused on technology designed to help reduce carbon emissions from our airplanes. Natron’s cutting-edge sodium-ion batteries presented an ideal opportunity to both potentially expand our sustainability investment portfolio to our ground operations and to help make our airport operations more resilient. United is looking forward to future opportunities to work with our airport partners on sustainable technology initiatives.”

United has more than 12,000 pieces of motorized ground equipment across its operations, of which about one-third are currently electric. Natron’s batteries could potentially be deployed in support of a number of uses, including:

  • Charging electric ground equipment
  • Charging anticipated future electric aircraft, such as electric air taxis
  • Allowing airport operations to manage electricity demand
  • Greatly improving resiliency related to inclement weather

“Natron’s sodium-ion batteries will help the aviation industry achieve its decarbonization and EV goals,” said Colin Wessells, CEO of Natron Energy. “Our batteries provide the high power over short distances that ground service equipment needs, and unlike lithium-ion, Natron’s batteries are completely nonflammable and can be safely deployed into ground service operations.”

Sodium-ion batteries possess distinct features that distinguish them from other battery technologies. They provide better performance and a longer lifespan compared to lithium batteries as verified by independent testing services. Moreover, these batteries are non-flammable, which is essential for high-power operations. Additionally, the minerals utilized in sodium-ion batteries are abundantly available and easily obtainable, unlike lithium which has limited supply and is expected to encounter increased demand by 2025.

Editor’s Note: Readers will recall how FlightChic feels about Lithium-powered batteries. (It’s not good. They’re an unsustainable, serious safety hazard that imperils the lives of pilots and passengers. Further, the production of Lithium-powered batteries exploits children. We need more salty batteries!)

Natron plans to use the funds to accelerate production at its manufacturing facility in Holland, Michigan, where it will scale operations to begin mass production of UL-listed sodium-ion batteries in 2023. 

UAV is a venture fund that prioritizes sustainability and was launched in 2021. It aims to support startups, upcoming technologies, and concepts that align with United’s goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, without relying on standard carbon offsets like tree planting. UAV’s portfolio includes SAF producers and other technologies like carbon utilization, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft, and urban air mobility.

United’s Commitment to Net Zero Emissions by 2050

United is on a mission to be 100% green by 2050, with a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero. Remarkably, they want to achieve this without relying on traditional carbon offsets. 

United’s efforts towards sustainable aviation include the launch of the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund and a Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) purchasing program named the Eco-Skies Alliance. They’ve also established a venture fund, United Airlines Ventures, which seeks out and invests in companies and technologies capable of decarbonizing air travel. 

Their strategic investments span a range of innovative solutions, such as carbon capture, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft, and even air taxis. In May 2023, their commitment to sustainability was recognized when they received validation from the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) for their goal to reduce carbon intensity by 50% by 2035, based on 2019 levels. 

Furthermore, United became the first U.S. airline to provide customers with an estimate of each flight’s carbon footprint during their search. 

About United

At United, Good Leads The Way. With US hubs in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York/Newark, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., United operates the most comprehensive global route network among North American carriers. It is now the largest airline in the world, as measured by available seat miles. For more about how to join the United team, please visit www.united.com/careers, and more information about the company is at www.united.com. United Airlines Holdings, Inc., the parent company of United Airlines, Inc., is traded on the Nasdaq under the symbol “UAL.”

About Electric Power Systems

Electric Power Systems (EPS) stands at the forefront in delivering high-power, scalable powertrains specifically designed for electrified aviation. Its impressive portfolio includes energy storage systems, DC fast-charging stations, and electric propulsion products for Aerospace. 

Currently, EPS’s battery systems are entrusted to power a number of customer flight demonstrator vehicles. Among these are the NASA X-57, Bell Nexus, Aura Flight Sciences Pegasus, Embraer Ipanema, and Boeing CAV

These advanced battery systems have a spotless safety record thanks to their sophisticated safety features. In fact, EPS is teamed up with the FAA, working towards certifying batteries for general aviation aircraft. The first TSO is expected to be completed in the very near future. For more information, visit www.epsenergy.com.

About Natron Energy

Natron Energy manufactures sodium-ion battery products based on a unique Prussian blue electrode chemistry for a wide variety of industrial power applications ranging from critical backup power systems to EV fast charging and behind-the-meter applications. Natron’s mission is to transform industrial and grid energy storage markets by providing customers with lower-cost, longer-lasting, more efficient, safer batteries. Natron’s products are UL 1973 listed, offer higher power density, faster recharge, and significantly longer cycle life than incumbent technologies. Natron builds its batteries using commodity materials on existing cell manufacturing lines in Michigan, USA. Learn more about Natron and its sodium-ion technology at Natron.energy.

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