United Airlines has made a strategic equity investment in battery manufacturer Natron Energy to help reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from ground operations.
The investment has been made through the Chicago-based airline’s venture capital arm United Airlines Ventures. Natron will use the funds to scale operations at its facility in Holland, Michigan to begin mass production of UL-listed sodium-ion batteries in 2023.
One-third of the airline’s more than 12,000 pieces of motorized ground equipment are currently electric. United plans to use Natron’s sodium-ion batteries to further electrify its airport ground equipment like pushback tractors and other operations at airport gates.
Natron’s batteries could also be used to charge future electric air taxis and enable airport operations to manage electricity demand, as well as improve resiliency to inclement weather, the airline adds.
"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."
Recent tests have shown that sodium-ion batteries are non-flammable and offer better output and cycle life compared to their lithium counterparts. Additionally, minerals used in these batteries are available in abundance and easily sourced, compared to lithium batteries which are in short supply with demand projected to triple by 2025.
"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."