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This jet fuel was made by sucking carbon out of the air. It could power your flights by 2024

Airlines, including JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic, are starting to buy carbon-neutral jet fuel developed by Air Company.

This jet fuel was made by sucking carbon out of the air. It could power your flights by 2024
[Image: Air Company]

Last month, an Air Force drone took off on a first-of-a-kind test flight with a new kind of fuel: one made with captured CO2 and renewable energy. It looks and acts like standard jet fuel, but when it burns, it’s carbon neutral.

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Air Company, the New York-based startup that created the fuel, is now developing its first commercial production facility for it, and is beginning to take orders from airlines including Jet Blue and Virgin Atlantic.

Co-Founders Dr. Stafford Sheehan and Gregory Constantine. [Image: Air Company]
“The aviation industry, for us, is really interesting, because it’s one of the toughest industries to decarbonize,” says Gregory Constantine, CEO and cofounder of Air Company. Some other startups are working on electric planes, though, right now, the technology is only feasible in small aircraft on short flights. Other companies are designing planes that can run on hydrogen fuel cells, but that also means that aircraft have to be redesigned.

The advantage of the CO2-based fuel, Constantine says, is that it can be used in current planes without the need for new engineering. “The benefit to what we’ve been able to do is create a 100% ‘drop-in’ fuel,” he says. “So no change needs to be made to existing engines.”

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[Image: Air Company]
Air Company, which has been working on CO2-conversion technology since 2017, uses renewable energy to make hydrogen from water, then adds the hydrogen to a reactor with CO2 captured from ethanol plants. “We can take those really pure streams of CO2 before they’re emitted into the atmosphere and utilize it in our process,” Constantine says. In a single step, the CO2 can be transformed into jet fuel. It’s basically a more efficient version of what plants do in photosynthesis, with oxygen as the only byproduct.

Because the company uses CO2 from ethanol facilities, and that ethanol is made from plants that captured CO2 as they grew, the fuel is carbon neutral when it’s used. As the cost of “direct air capture,” or sucking CO2 from the air, comes down, that captured CO2 can also be used to make the fuel. Right now, “we have a bunch of polluters out there that are just emitting really concentrated carbon dioxide straight into the atmosphere,” says Stafford Sheehan, Air Company’s cofounder and CTO. “So it’s more energy- and carbon-efficient for us just to take and use those concentrated streams.” Once those are mitigated, he says, the company will turn to direct air capture.

[Image: Air Company]
Aviation is currently responsible for between 2% to 3% of global CO2 emissions. The industry is aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but plans to buy offsets and pay for carbon capture for around 20% of those emissions rather than eliminating them directly. While it’s likely that some offsets will be needed, Constantine says, “significant investment in the space can reduce that number to much less than 20% and accelerate it to make it happen before 2050.” Other startups, like Twelve and Dimensional Energy, are also racing to make jet fuel from CO2 using different technological approaches.

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Sustainable aviation fuel “has the potential to achieve commercial viability at scale—a game-changer for our industry to significantly and quickly drive down our emissions,” says Sara Bodgan, sustainability director at JetBlue, which has committed to buy 25 million gallons of Air Company’s new fuel, “AIRMADE SAF,” over the next five years. It’s part of its own commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2040, a decade earlier than the industry as a whole. In the long term, she says, the airline also sees potential for electric and hydrogen planes.

[Image: Air Company]
Air Company previously launched smaller CO2-based products—vodka, hand sanitizer, and eau de parfum—made as a byproduct of its R&D. Now, a larger commercial plant is in development for its jet fuel, and the company plans to begin delivering fuels as soon as next year to some of its airline partners for testing. (The fuel is also going through ASTM testing to ensure it works like fossil fuels.) Commercial use could potentially begin as soon as 2024. Many in the industry thought that the first plant wouldn’t be possible this decade, or even the next, according to Constantine, both in terms of output and cost. The company has a “strong pathway to reach cost parity” with fossil fuels, he says, within this decade, and possibly sooner. New policy support, including subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act for hydrogen, CO2, and sustainable aviation, have helped speed up the timeline.

Still, of course, it won’t immediately replace conventional jet fuel. “The goal is really to change the energy industry from being based on fossil fuels to being based on fuels that are made from carbon dioxide in one way or another,” Sheehan says. “The potential scale is global, it’s massive. And the ultimate goal is obviously going to take a lot of time, because the fossil fuel industry has had around 170 years of infrastructure building . . . it isn’t going to be changed overnight. But we can take the steps to make that a reality now.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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