“There Is No Other Company Doing CO2 Hydrogenation On Such Scale,” Stafford Sheehan, Co-Founder Of AIR COMPANY

"There Is No Other Company Doing Hydrogenation On Such Scale," Stafford Sheehan, Co-Founder Of AIR COMPANY - Carbon Herald
Stafford Sheehan. Credit: AIR COMPANY

The circular economy allows for carbon emissions from the atmosphere or from point-source to be converted into products, creating a closed-loop system that maintains the same level of those emissions. AIR COMPANY is transforming CO2 into valuable resources, creating perfumes, alcohols, and sustainable fuels thanks to its AIRMADE™️ technology that is ready and scaling rapidly.

We had a conversation with Stafford Sheehan, co-founder and CTO of AIR COMPANY. He allowed us to take a look at the carbon utilization industry, explaining the company’s business model and how its technology is saving emissions in aviation and other industries.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you start the journey of AIR COMPANY? Why did you choose the area of CO2 utilization to tackle climate change?

I’ve been a researcher at CO2 utilization for about 15 years now. I did research on artificial photosynthesis which is using carbon dioxide and water to make products with oxygen as the only by-product. I’ve been in this field for most of my entire adult life and have done a lot of research around different ways of utilizing carbon dioxide. 

In 2017 I met my co-founder. We were both in our previous jobs at the time. He was working in luxury consumer goods. But we decided we wanted to start a business on the challenge that I had always seen in the carbon utilization industry – products made using CO2 are more expensive than fossil fuel derived products. 

In luxury consumer goods, you have a bit more price flexibility than you do in commodity goods, as long as you make a really good product. We started our company around the concept of commercializing these higher-value goods in the near term, as we scale the technology to get them to the scale of fossil fuels. However, it’s going to take a very long time to get the technology to the same level of fossil fuels so we have to have a viable business between now and then. 

What is the company’s unique technology? 

We do carbon dioxide hydrogenation. That means we take green hydrogen, we combine it with carbon dioxide in one step – one reactor, one catalysts, one step, and we turn that into products. The products vary, our biggest scale product that we’re looking to advance is the stainable aviation fuel. But really, we can make a variety of different chemicals, different products out of CO2, using the same technology. It’s all carbon dioxide hydrogenation.

How do traditional ethanol production facilities work? Do they use carbon dioxide as well in the process?

Traditional ethanol production does not use carbon dioxide as a feedstock. Traditional ethanol production uses corn or sugar, essentially any sugar source can be a feedstock. However, there are substantial CO2 emissions that are associated with that process. There’s no other company right now that is doing what we are doing – single-step carbon dioxide hydrogenation and on the scale that we’re doing. 

Air Factory. Credit: AIR COMPANY

If you want to make ethanol the old-fashioned way, there are two ways you can do it – you can make it from natural gas. You take the natural gas, crack it into ethylene, and then take the ethylene and hydrate it into ethanol. 7% of the ethanol on the planet is made that way. 

Over 90% of the ethanol is made from the fermentation of corn, switchgrass or sugarcane as well as Brazil sugarcane. The way that works is, you have a farm, you grow a plant, you have to use fertilizers, and they are a huge source of CO2 emissions, you have to use irrigation and that consumes a lot of gasoline and other fuel. 

Relevant: Air Company Launches First Sustainable Aviation Fuel Made From CO2

You grow the plant, you harvest it, you mash it up, essentially, you put it into a big bucket. After you mash it up, you add yeast and the yeast chews up parts of the plant. That will make the ethanol product. Then you have to take the mixture and distill it. Distilling it is also a very energy-intensive process. 

That’s how ethanol is made. Ethanol is typically made from plants grown on a farm. It can benefit from responsible agriculture but on the scale that ethanol needs to be produced, it’s not currently responsibly produced. In order to address the total volumes of the sustainable fuels that are required to replace fossil fuels, you will need to utilize carbon dioxide. 

What are the emissions saved by your technology compared to traditional ethanol production?

Lifecycle analyses show that between 50 and 70 grams of CO2 is emitted per megajoule of energy in your finished ethanol liquid. We are less than 5 grams so we are more than 10 times more climate friendly than legacy methods.

And for aviation fuels, how much emissions are avoided with SAF produced using your technology compared to fossil-fuel-derived aviation fuels?

AIRMADE™️ SAF Bottle. Credit: AIR COMPANY

For all of our fuels brought to the table, you can say that they bring more than a 97% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. The reason for that is with a sustainable aviation fuel you’re getting captured CO2 or CO2 from an atmospheric source. 

What products have you currently brought to a commercial stage?

The products that we have commercially available – the luxury goods can be found on our website. We have a perfume product, we have a vodka product that you can find in markets here in Manhattan. We produce the liquid for the vodka and perfume in our small research and development field demonstration plant. 

That plant produces primarily for research and development. We are still in the process of building our first commercial scale plant. Once we get to that stage, the consumer goods will be more widely available. The perfume you can buy online right now on our website, and we ship around the US. I think we also have an international partner Selfridges that has distribution throughout Europe. 

And what are your plans for the sustainable aviation fuels? 

Air Factory. Credit: AIR COMPANY

As I mentioned, we operate a demonstration scale plant in Brooklyn, New York so we are on the demo scale. We produce metric tons of the fuel. However, in order to be at commercial scale, you have to be producing million metric tons. What we are currently working on within our business is to scale the SAF. The number one goal at our company is scaling that technology.

What is your business model? Do you just sell the final product or do you also license your AIRMADE™ technology? 

Both, we do recognize that in order for our technology to be widely used, to be broadly deployed and have the carbon impact that we want it to have, we do need to license it. We have to work with partners. We are looking at a licensing model in the long term for our technology. Various groups that will potentially license sustainable aviation fuels technology are partners of ours.

Have you planned your facilities’ scale up? How are you going to satisfy this huge market demand for products made out of CO2?

Credit: Olivier Le Moal | Shutterstock

For the ethanol based product, we’re building small commercial facilities. For the sustainable aviation fuel, we’re looking more at a licensing model. We would license our sustainable aviation fuel technology to operating companies around the world. And that’s really our goal. Our company is the technology provider.

Do you see sustainable aviation fuel as a better choice for the industries than emission reduction technologies like electric or hydrogen airplanes for the short and long term?

I would say both in the short term and the long term we’re going to need sustainable aviation fuel. I think the last time I flew on an airplane, the airplane was older than me. The airplanes in the commercial fleet have been in service for decades so the airplanes that are being deployed today are still going to be the ones that we using in 2050. 

That means in order to decarbonize aviation by 2050, we need to produce drop-in fuel that is compatible with current engines. I would say electric aviation may be possible for short flights, like 30 minute flights, but you are never going to fly long haul flights with a battery because the energy density doesn’t work. 

Image: joo830908 | Shutterstock

Batteries don’t have enough energy density and they can’t store enough kilowatt hours of energy per kilogram of battery in order for you to take a long haul flight. The physics of it doesn’t work. 

On your website, you are saying that by scaling your technology across all potential verticals, you can avoid 10% of global emissions or a bit less than 5 gigatons of CO2 annually. What potential verticals are you referring to here?

Ethanol, methanol and kerosene-type paraffinic fuels or diesel fuels. The markets that we target are all major chemicals that are produced on global scales. 

What partnerships are you looking for right now? 

I would say a lot of the partnerships that we have been working on lately are government-related. I think we announced recently that we have a contract with the Defense Innovation Unit and the United States Air Force. They’re the largest emitters of greenhouse gases or the largest consumers of jet fuel in the world. 

Relevant: Air Company And DoD Sign $65M Deal For Sustainable Jet Fuel

We want to start by helping to decarbonize the very large consumers of jet fuel. That also helps strategically with energy independence. We don’t want our country to be dependent on other countries for energy reserves, and neither does anybody. Everybody wants to be able to produce their own energy. That’s kind of the first partnership that we are looking at.

Beyond that, we have a lot of commercial partnerships, JetBlue is an investor in our business. They are also an off taker of our fuel. We have several other off-takers like Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada that we announced as well. We have other investors in the business that are strategic investors around aviation fuel. One of the company is called Ag Fuel and they’re the largest privately held distributor of aviation fuel.

Would you also please share more information about your partnership with NASA? Do you also work on sustainable fuels for the spaceflight sector and what is the progress so far?

Yeah, we have a contract with NASA focused on making jet fuel in remote locations. They want to be able to make jet fuel, or rocket fuel on Mars. That is a long term project. We see our technology deploying in the next three to five years and we see the NASA collaboration coming to fruition probably in the next 10 years. 

Credit: AIR COMPANY

If you are flying to Mars, you don’t have the ability to bring fuel for the return flight. So the idea is if you want to send astronauts to Mars, the first thing you have to do is to produce the fuel on Mars so the astronauts can come back to Earth. That’s a huge challenge. One of the things that makes it easier is that the atmosphere of Mars is over 95% carbon dioxide. So we can take the atmosphere, combine it with some of the water available on Mars and make the rocket fuel remotely. That is what we are working on with NASA – being able to make the fuel that will help power the return flight.

Where do you see AIR COMPANY in 2030?

In 2030, we hope to have several technologies licensed around the world. We hope to have our technology licensed and deployed and have orders of millions or billions of gallons of sustainable aviation fuel. That’s really where we would like to see ourselves.

Does that mean you prioritize the sustainable aviation fuel products before perfumes, vodka and the other ethanol-based products?

Our top priority is reduction and utilization of carbon dioxide. The sustainable aviation fuel is really what we focus on at the business because that has the largest potential to do so and the luxury consumer goods help us get there. 

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