Instead of using the traditional ingredients of rye and yeast, a new type of vodka is made from captured CO2. It’s the first product from Air Company, a startup focused on turning climate pollution into valuable products.
“Climate change is probably the biggest existential threat that humanity faces,” says cofounder and CTO Stafford Sheehan. “We’re doing what we’re doing not just to contribute ourselves to fighting climate change, but to try to help empower other people to fight climate change in the everyday decisions that they make. And that’s one of the reasons that we target consumer goods.”
Through a patented process based on the same principles as photosynthesis in a plant, the company uses renewable energy to convert carbon from the air into ethanol. Sheehan, who has spent years working on CO2 conversion technology, ended up making vodka somewhat by accident. The tech he had developed happened to make ethanol, and that ethanol happens to be particularly well suited for making a drink. “We ended up targeting premium spirits because the ethanol that we were making was really, really high purity, and the place where you can recognize the benefits of that really high purity is in a really premium vodka,” he says. His cofounder, CEO Greg Constantine, also had a background in the industry. Now the company takes CO2 from factories (often alcohol production) and uses it to make its ethanol. A typical bottle of vodka might produce 13 pounds of greenhouse gases, but Air Company’s new vodka has no footprint; it’s actually carbon negative, helping take an extra pound of CO2 out of the air for each bottle produced.
The company launched the vodka (which retails for $75 a bottle) in New York City bars shortly before the pandemic began to shut everything down, and pivoted to temporarily make hand sanitizer instead. This year, as the company—the winner of the North American category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—expands sales of the vodka, it also plans to launch a handful of other products, including perfume. While ethanol can also be made into fuel and other products, the purity of the ethanol doesn’t make a difference in fuel, whereas it does matter in alcohol or perfume. “We’re looking at applications where we have a clear advantage over the fossil-fuel counterpart,” Sheehan says.
In a partnership with NASA, Air Company is also studying how ethanol from CO2 can be turned into glucose, which could then be used for food in space. (Glucose can be used directly as an ingredient, or used as food for microbes, which can then produce things like lab-grown meat.) It’s also working with partners on a renewable rocket fuel that can be made from air, solar power, and water. “The goal is to really showcase that you can turn carbon dioxide into a variety of things that are all potentially better than their predecessors,” says Constantine.