A new brand of vodka from a startup called Air Co. is made from captured CO2 instead of yeast—and making a bottle of it is the equivalent of the daily carbon intake of eight trees.
“Our technology uses carbon dioxide and water along with electricity to create alcohol,” says Stafford Sheehan, an electrochemist and cofounder of the startup, which launched the product in a handful of bars, restaurants, and retailers in New York City today. “That’s inspired by photosynthesis in nature, where plants breathe in CO2. They take up water, and they use energy in the form of sunlight to make things like sugars and to make other higher-value hydrocarbons, with oxygen as the sole by-product. Same thing with our process: The only by-product is oxygen.”
While making a typical bottle of vodka might produce around 13 pounds of greenhouse gases, Air Co.’s product is actually carbon negative, removing a pound of CO2 for every bottle produced. The company captures CO2 from nearby factories—appropriately, much of it comes from traditional alcohol production. Then, inside its own Brooklyn distillery, the team uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is emitted, and the hydrogen is combined with the CO2. “We do that in a reactor with a special catalyst and that’s kind of our secret sauce,” says Sheehan. The combination makes alcohol and water. The final step is to remove the water through distillation. The whole process, including the still, runs on solar power “so the overall lifecycle carbon intensity of all the energy that we use is minimized, and in the end, we get a product that is net carbon negative.”
The vodka, the company says, is also more pure than vodka made traditionally from yeast, since fermentation creates impurities like methanols and carbolic acids that can be difficult to remove through distillation. “Air Co.’s process circumvents the production of these impurities entirely, by connecting two carbon dioxide molecules together—’building up’ to produce ethanol, rather than breaking down larger molecules that produces a wash with high impurity content,” says the company’s CEO and cofounder Greg Constantine.
The process is related to technology that others are using to turn CO2 into fuel. Some other companies are also using CO2 in the food world, though Air Co. may be the first to market. Solar Foods, a Finnish startup, is developing a protein powder made from CO2. Kiverdi, a Bay Area-based startup, is working on making a sustainable replacement for palm oil from CO2 along with CO2-based protein.
Air Co. is launching first in Michelin-star restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern, some of the founders’ favorite New York City bars, and a few liquor stores and the online platform Drizly. After testing in the area, they plan to open more distilleries in other parts of the country. “The benefit of this technology is it is extremely modular,” says Constantine. “What we’re able to fit in a 500- to 1,000-square-foot space, traditional alcohol production methods and distilleries would need football fields and football fields of corn and irrigation. We can do that in a very metropolitan area, and that allows us to potentially displace transportation by placing these, hopefully, around the country.”