United and United Airlines Ventures (UAV) today announced an investment in and commercial agreement with Dimensional Energy, another step forward to reach United's 100% green net zero commitment by 2050, without the use of traditional carbon offsets. Dimensional Energy's novel technology removes the need for fossil fuels, converting carbon dioxide and water into usable ingredients for the Fischer-Tropsch process – a nearly 100-year-old proven technology used to produce fuels from coal or methane. While facilities around the world continue to use Fischer-Tropsch to produce fossil fuels, Dimensional will be one of the first to use it to produce sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).
Under the commercial agreement, United has agreed to purchase at least 300 million gallons of SAF over 20 years from Dimensional. This agreement further cements United's status as an airline industry leader in sustainability. United's SAF agreements represent the largest volume of SAF of any airline over the next 20 years, based on publicly announced agreements.
"Sometimes you have to look to the past to solve new problems, and we recognize that decarbonizing air travel is going to require combining proven technologies, such as Fischer-Tropsch, with the latest advances in science and engineering," said Michael Leskinen, President of United Airlines Ventures. "As we grow our portfolio of companies like Dimensional, we are creating opportunities to scale these early-stage technologies and achieve United's commitment carbon neutrality by 2050, without the use of traditional carbon offsets."
Dimensional Energy was founded in Ithaca, New York, in 2016 and has spent the last six years refining its reactors and catalysts in both lab and real-world demonstrations. The company's early success led to its status as a finalist in the first Carbon Xprize, and in September 2021, global climate technology nonprofit investor Elemental Excelerator funded Dimensional as part of its 10th cohort, which led to the company's introduction to United. Dimensional has also received grants from the National Science Foundation and both the Department of Energy's ARPA-e and Solar Energy Technology Office (SETO). The company began construction on a carbon dioxide to fuels demo in Tucson, Arizona in 2021. Commissioning of the facility has already begun, and it is set to begin operation this July.
"Dimensional Energy is acutely focused on energy solutions that center communities who have been marginalized in the past century as infrastructure and energy systems were developed. We envision a world run on truly conflict-free energy that can scale to meet the global demand for hydrocarbon fuels and feedstocks. United's support of sustainable aviation fuel made from captured emissions is an important step in the aviation industry's pursuit of carbon neutrality," said Dimensional Energy Co-founder and CEO Jason Salfi.
Dimensional's technology can run on all forms of renewable energy. At the Tucson site, they are using electricity from the Arizona grid, which gets an increasing amount of power from local solar panels. Future plants are slated to use hydro-power, wind-power and rapidly maturing concentrated solar, which utilizes heat from direct sunlight.
Dimensional can also utilize carbon dioxide from a variety of sources, be it straight from industrial sites (like cement plants), from Direct Air Capture (a technology that can capture CO2 from anywhere in the world), and biological processes like fermentation and biomass gasification.
Today's announcement marks UAV's fourth SAF-related technology investment, but its first the pathway of power-to-liquids: which creates SAF synthetically without the constraints of feedstock growth that is prevalent in other biofuel pathways. Launched in 2021, UAV targets startups, upcoming technologies, and sustainability concepts that will complement United's goal of net zero emissions by 2050 – without relying on traditional carbon offsets. Over the last decade, United has built a first-of-its-kind sustainability-focused ventures fund. UAV's portfolio now includes SAF producers and other technologies including carbon capture, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft, and urban air mobility.
Here are some of the ways United plans to make sustainability the new standard in flight:
- In May, United became the first U.S. carrier to sign an overseas SAF fuel purchase, with Neste for more than 50 million gallons of SAF to initially fuel United flights out of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.
- In March, UAV invested in synthetic biology company Cemvita Factory for them to begin R&D efforts to bioengineer microbes with the express purpose of creating SAF.
- In December 2021, United purchased an equity stake in hydrogen-electric engine developer ZeroAvia, becoming the largest airline to invest in zero-emission engines for regional aircraft.
- In December 2021, UAV became the first in aviation history to fly an aircraft with passengers using 100% SAF in one engine.
- In September 2021, United agreed to purchase up to 1.5 billion gallons of SAF paired with an investment by UAV in Alder Fuels - enough to fly more than 57 million passengers.
- United is also an investor in Fulcrum BioEnergy, where United has an option to purchase up to 900 million gallons of SAF.
- In July 2021, UAV announced that along with Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Mesa Airlines, it invested in electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace. Heart Aerospace is developing the ES-19, a 19-seat electric aircraft that has the potential to fly customers with zero emissions when powered by renewable electricity.
- In July 2021, Air Transport World magazine named United its Eco-Airline of the Year for the second time, and the third time to its top environmental honor.
- In February 2021, United announced an agreement to work with Archer Aviation to accelerate the development and production of their electric aircraft – an urban mobility solution that has the potential to serve as an 'air taxi,' giving United customers another opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint before they even board a United flight.
- In 2019, United operated the Flight for the Planet, which at the time represented the most-eco-friendly commercial flight of its kind in the history of commercial aviation.
- In 2018, United became the first U.S. airline to commit to reducing its GHG emissions, by 50% by 2050. This goal has since been superseded by the airline's 100% green net zero commitment.
- In 2016, United became the first airline globally to use SAF in regular operations on a continuous basis with SAF from World Energy.