As more companies focus on reducing their own carbon emissions, a startup is looking to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and create sustainable aviation fuel. It already has a small-scale workflow and says it could “mitigate” its carbon emissions by at least 10% if it and other manufacturers scaled up production.
A startup specializing in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) has signed a $65 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to create jet fuel out of thin air. The contract will provide funding for a startup called Air Company to advance research and develop a system capable of extracting carbon dioxide from the air and converting it into fuel-grade alcohol and paraffin.
The Air Company already has a process for converting carbon dioxide into jet fuel and has published a white paper on the process. The company claims to have realized a step in the nearly 100-year-old Fischer-Tops process. It involves creating, harvesting and storing carbon dioxide from industrial corn fermentation. It then uses water electrolysis to produce hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2).
Oxygen is released into the atmosphere, while H2 enters a reactor along with captured carbon dioxide and a catalyst. This chemical reaction produces ethanol, methanol, water and paraffin. These components separated by distillation can be used in other products, including vodka, perfume, hand sanitizer and SAF.
The company cannot yet produce at the scale needed to affect global carbon dioxide levels. However, Chief Executive Gregory Constantine said Air Company and others could reduce carbon emissions by more than 10% if they could achieve scale and all industries that depend on the fuel switch to SAF.
“These contracts allow [us] to focus on the development of the technology and the development of the technology,” Constantine told USA TODAY. “The core of our technology really revolves around the utilization of carbon.”
Unfortunately, the company’s lofty goals remain in the distant future. While the DoD contract will help Air Company perfect its process and build a large-scale production plant, it will take more than one company to produce enough SAF to meet the needs of the entire aviation industry.
Another complication is that most regulators maintain specific restrictions on the use of SAF. Constantine said: “Under current legislation and regulation, we have to abide by blending restrictions, and the fuels we create have ingredients that cannot be blended. We hope that in the coming years, these blending restrictions will increase and regulations will eventually allow Use 100% SAF.”
Currently, aviation fuel blends can only contain less than 50% SAF. However, the Air Company worked with the Air Force to test-fly a 100% SAF, which proved to be a success. Dutch airline KLM has also trialed pure SAF with its engine manufacturer and concluded that it can burn safely.
The Air Company has already contracted three airlines to supply SAF – Boom, JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic. Boom has agreed to buy 5 million gallons per year for an unspecified period of time to fuel its supersonic Overture jets. JetBlue signed a five-year contract to buy 25 million gallons, while Virgin Atlantic committed to buying 100 million gallons over 10 years.