In 2019, Air Company made a splash when it released vodka derived from reclaimed carbon, in an effort to reduce the amount of harmful greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
Today, the Brooklyn-based startup has begun using the same process to make jet fuel.
Air Company’s sustainable aviation fuel, which was recently tested by the US Air Force, could ultimately help the airline industry achieve its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Currently, the airline industry accounts for about 3% of total global carbon emissions each year. , and relies primarily on traditional fossil-based fuels that require various forms of environmental alteration to produce.
Some of the world’s largest airlines already subscribe to Air Company’s vision. The company announced last month that Jet Blue and Virgin Atlantic, as well as the aircraft carrier Boom Supersonic, have agreed to buy millions of gallons of its fuel in the coming years. Jet Blue Ventures, the airline’s investment arm, also directly invested in the airline’s $30 million Series A funding round earlier this year.
“The way we think about what the company does is to try to solve humanity’s toughest problems,” Air Company co-founder and CEO Gregory Constantine told CNN in an interview last month. “For us, climate change is the biggest challenge we’ve faced as humanity yet… so if we can work on technologies that take what was once thought of as a problem and turn it into a solution, then that’s a problem. massive win.”
A number of sustainable aviation fuel producers have emerged in recent years, including a major Finnish producer called Neste, many with ingredients such as plant material and cooking oil. But Air Company’s production process starts by removing harmful carbon emissions from the air.
The company first collects carbon, mainly from industrial environments such as biofuel production facilities. It then takes water, separates the hydrogen from the oxygen, and mixes the captured carbon with the hydrogen and a proprietary mix of other compounds, according to the airline’s CTO Stafford Sheehan. It then distills this solution, using what looks like a larger version of, say, a whiskey still. The final products are ethyl alcohol, which is used to make the company’s vodka and other products such as perfume, as well as paraffin, which is the basis of its jet fuel.
In some ways, Sheehan said, the process mimics how plants work: It takes in carbon, and other than the end products, the only other output is oxygen. And the company says its tests have indicated planes should be able to fly using its fuel without mixing it with fossil fuels or modifying its engines.
When a plane has flown using the Air Company’s fuel, it will have released the same amount of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere that was captured to make the fuel, meaning the process is generally carbon neutral , Sheehan said. The company uses renewable energy sources such as solar to power its production facilities.
Air Company still has work to do until its carbon-derived fuel is ready to be widely used in commercial flights. It needs more testing and needs to grow its manufacturing footprint. Sheehan said the company’s next production facility is already in the works and will be about 100 times the size of its Brooklyn testing facility, which is likely the size of a two-bedroom apartment in New York.
The company will also have to reduce the cost of its fuel, which is currently more expensive than traditional jet fuels, although the company declined to provide details on how much. Air Company said that “consumers will not feel the impact of this change” and added that the cost reduction will be achieved in part “through a range of government incentives made available to fuel producers that generate sustainable alternatives”.
Constantine said the company plans to do the first test of its fuel on a commercial plane next year and expects its fuel to be used on its first commercial passenger flight in 2024.
Still, Air Company is hopeful that its efforts can eventually better disrupt the aviation industry, just as it has been working to do with its consumer goods.
“Aviation has been part of the goal from the beginning,” he said. “However, getting to these large industrial markets like jet fuel, which are traditionally known as the hottest industrial industries to decarbonize, will take time. It will take a lot of money and a lot of effort.”