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United Airlines invests in battery manufacturer to boost ground operations electrification

The Hill logo The Hill 11/30/2022 Gianna Melillo
© Provided by The Hill

Story at a glance

  • United Airlines operates more than 12,000 pieces of ground equipment and around one-third run on electricity. 
  • The new investment will boost production of sodium-ion batteries.
  • Compared with lithium-ion batteries, sodium-ion batteries are safer and can be manufactured from more abundant materials.

United Airlines announced a new investment in Natron Energy, a battery manufacturer, to boost electrification of the airline’s ground equipment. 

Although the company has previously invested in efforts to reduce aircraft emissions, the move is the first that has the potential to reduce United’s greenhouse gas footprint from its ground operations, United said in a statement. 

Natron Energy produces high-performance sodium-ion batteries, which, compared with lithium-ion batteries, are safer and have greater power density and recharging speed, according to the company. Lithium-ion batteries are common in consumer electronics, but have a tendency to overheat. Natron’s sodium-ion batteries are non-flammable.

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The investment is part of United Airlines Ventures, a fund that focuses on investing in new technologies and sustainable solutions to help United Airlines meet its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. The fund was launched in 2021.

“Out of the gate, we primarily focused on technology designed to help reduce carbon emissions from our airplanes,” said Michael Leskinen, President of United Airline Ventures, in a release. 

“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.”

(Natron Energy) © Provided by The Hill (Natron Energy)

United currently has more than 12,000 pieces of motorized ground equipment, about one third of which are already electric. The sodium-ion batteries could be used for charging electric ground equipment and future electric aircraft like air taxis, as well as to improve resiliency during inclement weather, the company said. 

“Natron’s sodium-ion batteries will help the aviation industry achieve its decarbonization and [electric vehicle] goals,” said Colin Wessells, CEO of Natron Energy. “Our batteries provide the high power over short distances that ground service equipment needs.”  

The sodium-ion batteries also have a superior output and cycle life than lithium batteries, per the company. Their nonflammable nature provides a safeguard for the high usage and power required for certain operations. 

Furthermore, demand for raw materials to make lithium batteries is growing, and shortages are already being reported, especially in the electric vehicle sector

In contrast, materials used to make sodium-ion batteries are abundant and easily sourced.

“​​Made from commodity materials including aluminum, iron, manganese, and sodium-ions (~68% of the earth’s surface is covered with salt water) Natron’s cells, modules, and battery represent a responsible alternative to lead and lithium batteries,” the company’s website reads

The new funds from United Airlines will help boost production at Natron’s manufacturing facility in Michigan. The company plans to scale operations to begin mass production of UL-listed sodium-ion batteries in 2023. 

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