Air Company launches its sustainable jet fuel

On Thursday, JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic, the United States Air Force and others announced their commitment to purchase sustainable aviation fuel from a New York-based startup called Air Company.

JetBlue agreed to purchase 25 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Air Company over five years, and Virgin Atlantic agreed to purchase up to 100 million gallons over 10 years. Boom Supersonic, a company trying to bring back supersonic passenger flights, plans to purchase up to 5 million gallons of this fuel annually through the Overture flight test program.

According to a press release, the U.S. Air Force, which awarded the company a contract, has already completed a “first unmanned flight of its kind using Air Company’s 100% unmixed, CO2-derived jet fuel.”

“Aviation as a whole represents 2-3% of global CO2 emissions and is widely regarded as one of the most ‘hard to decarbonize’ industries,” Air Company noted in a statement. “Using the same proprietary technology that mimics photosynthesis to create its consumer ethanol, Air Company has developed and implemented its one-step process for the production of CO2-derived fuel using renewable electricity.”

There has been a lot of emerging research and investment in developing sustainable jet fuel as there is a greater focus on technologies that can help companies reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. While electric and battery-powered vehicles are also being looked at as an alternative to air transport, they may come with their own challenges. Electric planes could work for short hops, but they are not feasible for long journeys. So the need for more environmentally friendly ways to power aircraft combustion engines.

So what is sustainable jet fuel?

Traditional jet fuel, or kerosene, is a mixture of hydrocarbons made from a series of chemical reactions. But to make it sustainable, instead of using fossil fuels, engineers would instead integrate more renewable resources, such as raw materials, or waste products, such as used cooking oil (read PopSci’explanation about sustainable jet fuel here). In general, the idea is that even if they still emit carbon pollution when burned, because they’ve taken carbon from the air during the manufacturing process, they’re ultimately “carbon neutral.”

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can be made from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. This subset of products are called synthetic SAFs.

[Related: The truth about carbon capture technology]

“Application of our new carbon conversion process has the potential to replace legacy Fischer-Tropsch systems by simplifying multi-step conversion to single-step CO2 hydrogenation to fuel-grade paraffin,” Air Company co-founder Stafford Sheehan said in a press release. . (Fischer-Tropsch systems convert hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide into water vapor and hydrocarbons through reactions that rearrange the bonds between the compounds. The source of the carbon monoxide is usually coal or natural gas.) “In addition, with additional reactor modifications, we can produce a fuel composition that can can be used in a jet engine without the need for blending with fossil fuels, as demonstrated during our test flight with the US Air Force. Our one-step process will make SAF more cost-effective, towards widespread use.”

At the AIR factory 1. Airline

The company detailed their entire fuel production process in a white paper published in the magazine ACS Energy Letters. Earlier this year, the company experimented on a smaller scale with making ethanol from scratch using products like vodka, hand sanitizer and perfume.

The US has already approved the use of SAFs in a blend with traditional jet fuel. Researchers in Europe have explored ways to reconfigure the original jet fuel production process with renewable energy and non-fossil feedstocks. However, efficiency is a barrier, as is cost. SAFs reportedly cost two to four times more than traditional jet fuel, and Air Company is no exception to this problem. The CEO of the company told axios that their SAF “isn’t close to cost parity with traditional jet fuel,” but SAF-specific incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act should be able to cut some of the cost. Another obstacle is the availability of SAFs compared to traditional jet fuel.

While a few companies have tested small flights running on this greener jet fuel alternative, questions still remain about how compatible SAFs are with the materials that make up the aircraft in the long run.

However, despite skepticism and hurdles, many companies are still investing in this vision. In July, Alaska Airlines, Microsoft and Twelve said they were working on a demonstration flight using fuels derived from recovered CO2 and renewable energy. And last year, Lufthansa announced a similar agreement to produce and use synthetic jet fuel.