Startup Air Company caused a stir three years ago by distilling vodka using captured carbon dioxide. In a converted nightclub in Brooklyn, New York, the company built a maze of tubes and tanks to turn greenhouse gases into spirits — without grains or potatoes. Since then, Air Company has honed its technology to produce another crystal-clear, coveted liquid: sustainable aviation fuel.
Thursday, during climate week New York, the startup unveiled a second, larger chemical reactor in Brooklyn. Air Company now manufactures small batches of CO2– derivative jet fuel, including a 5-gallon order for the US Air Force, which recently used the fuel to fly a large drone in North Florida.
Yet Air Company will have to increase production exponentially if it is to fill its last large orders.
JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic and other airlines have agreed to buy 1 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Air Company over the next decade, the companies said this week. The ad follows a $30 million in investments in April led by the venture capital arms of JetBlue and Toyota, bringing Air Company’s total funding to $40 million.
“Our technology and the products we make are really a stepping stone to massive commodities,” said Gregory Constantine, CEO of the Airline. In addition to vodka, the startup makes perfume and hand sanitizer using carbon dioxide captured from beverage manufacturing plants, which produce waste gases during fermentation.
“From a decarbonization perspective, [aviation] This is where we can have the most impact on the climate,” he told Canary Media.
The global aviation industry contributes more than 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions each year, a share that is expected to skyrocket as passenger air travel increases. Many aviation analysts agree that sustainable aviation fuel, or FAS, will play a key role in reducing emissions from long-haul flights and larger aircraft. Batteries and hydrogen, meanwhile, are expected to power mainly short-haul and regional flights.
Airlines currently use tiny amounts of sustainable aviation fuel: approximately 26 million gallons in 2021or below 1 % of total jet fuel demand. Almost all existing FAS production uses corn, soybeans, animal fats or used cooking oil. As demand from industry grows, experts warn that using these materials could displace the food supply, drive deforestation or perpetuate factory farming.
Air Company is part of a growing group of startups striving to replace petroleum-based jet fuel and also developing the next generation of alternatives.
The CO2-to-fuel startup Twelve makes aviation fuel using carbon dioxide captured in places like pulp and paper mills and ethanol refineries. LanzaTech makes ethanol from microbes that feed on carbon-rich waste gases emitted from steel mills in China; the resulting product is turned into synthetic kerosene and mixed with jet fuel. Irish start-up XFuel uses waste from construction, forestry and agriculture to make biofuels for planes and cargo ships.
“Time [left] to address aviation emissions is very limited,” said Nicholas Flanders, co-founder and CEO of Twelve. “We think that CO2-fuel-based fuels are going to be a very big corner in this.
His California-based company is teaming up with Alaska Airlines and Microsoft to test its “E-Jet fuel” during a commercial demonstration flight. Twelve recently raised $130 million to industrially develop its technology. (On Wednesday, the startup announced that it would also begin producing sustainable marine fuels through a partnership with Virgin Voyages to clean cruise ships.)
The Biden administration aims to increase US production of SAF for 3 billion gallons per year per 2030 — an effort that recently received a major funding increase under the Reduction of Inflation Act. As airlines and aviation experts applauded the law FAS provisions, some critics say the policy risks undermining other, more immediate solutions to reducing emissions from flying, such as improving aircraft fuel efficiency and electrifying airport equipment.
“Rather than putting all our eggs in the sustainable aviation fuel basket, we need to take a more holistic approach,” said John Fleming, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute.