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United taps Natron for on-ground electrification

Illustration of pilot wings emblem with a symbol of a charging battery.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

United Airlines Ventures has invested an undisclosed amount in Natron Energy, as the airline prepares to electrify its ground operations.

Why it matters: Airlines are looking at additional emissions-cutting strategies as larger impact tools like sustainable aviation fuel remain far from commercial availability.

How it works: Natron makes sodium-ion batteries that can power ground operations vehicles via stored energy instead of diesel or gasoline.

Context: On-ground operations like baggage vehicles or pushback tractors generate a minor amount of emissions compared to United's flight operations.

  • The FAA has given minor grants to a host of airports for ground operation electrification, but the grant amounts remain relatively small.

Driving the news: United Airlines investment will help Natron get its Holland, Michigan, manufacturing facility up and running. Battery production is expected to start in 2023.

  • United Airlines Ventures president Mike Leskinen tells Axios' Joann Muller that the deal is a "comprehensive partnership" that includes an option for follow-on financing as well as a commercial agreement. Leskinen declined to share the round or follow-on amount as well as the details of the commercial agreement.

Zoom out: In an effort to exert control over its widespread footprint, the airline industry is taking a page out of the automotive industry's playbook by getting directly involved in the upstream supply chain.

  • Automakers have invested in battery manufacturing companies of late following the influx of funds available to domestic production facilities in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Yes, but: The airline industry is among the most exposed to climate risks, primarily stemming from potential regulation and disclosure requirements for industries that emit large amounts of carbon.

  • "The bulk of our emissions come from aircraft, but electrifying ground equipment's a lot easier to do," Leskinen says.
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