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Hydrogen airplane companies feeling new highs — and new lows

By Clare Fieseler | 07/03/2024 06:53 AM EDT

American Airlines inked a deal to buy hydrogen-electric engines, but the industry faces investment challenges.

 ZeroAvia hydrogen-electric airplane

An ZeroAvia hydrogen-electric airplane is shown. ZeroAvia

American Airlines announced this week that it will buy 100 hydrogen-electric engines to power its regional jets, betting big on a technology that has struggled to gain a foothold in the aviation industry.

The company’s new deal with ZeroAvia comes on the heels of the collapse of Universal Hydrogen, a California-based aviation startup that counted American Airlines as one of its backers. The two developments underscore the unpredictability of an industry that promises emissions-free flying but has failed to attract as many investors as other low-carbon solutions.

“I think it’s fair to say that there is just more attention right now on the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) market,” said Andrew Chen, the principal for aviation decarbonization at RMI, a Colorado-based think tank. Such fuels are usually made from feedstocks like used cooking oil and animal fat and have lower emissions than jet fuel.

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American Airlines has been investing for years in ZeroAvia, which is testing a prototype for a 20-seat plane and designing an engine for larger planes. The company’s engine would be used in aircraft such as the Bombardier CRJ700, which American uses to carry about 60 passengers on regional routes. The airline has said it anticipates the hydrogen-electric engines could be launched as early as the late 2020s.

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