The company transforming CO2 into clean alcohols and fuel
In this episode, we talk to Gregory Constantine, Co-Founder and CEO of Air Company.
Appears in this episode
Welcome to Season 3 of Sustainability in the Air, the world’s first podcast dedicated to sustainable aviation. Through in-depth conversations with top aviation leaders, we break through the clutter and provide a clear roadmap for a net-zero future.
Did you know that Air Company is using thin air to make sustainable aviation fuel, vodka, perfume, sanitiser and more?
In this episode of our ‘Sustainability in the Air’ podcast, Gregory Constantine, Co-Founder and CEO of Air Company, speaks with SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam and tells us more about his company’s remarkable vision for a sustainable future.
You can listen and subscribe to our podcast below or read our deep dive into the episode. If you’re rushed for time, you can also directly jump to your topic of interest by referring to these timestamps:
Air Capture 101, how Air Company does it (3:08)
Addressing the supply challenge of SAF (7:12)
Air-made spirits and perfume: At an airport near you soon (13:00)
Price for air-made SAF (16:45)
Rocket fuel for NASA (17:55)
Challenges of a start-up (19:40)
Airlines that are doing a good job towards getting to a net zero target (20:54)
“Everything that we create, we create out of thin air”
The story begins a decade ago when Gregory Constantine ventured from Sydney to New York, where he worked for Diageo, one of the largest beverage companies in the world.
Around 2017, he met Dr. Stafford Sheehan and the two men realised they shared a common goal of bettering the planet. Following countless hours of iteration and innovation, they launched Air Company in 2019.
Not more than a year later, Air Company was named by TIME for having one of the 100 Best Inventions of 2020 for distilling spirits from nothing more than water and carbon dioxide through a process that transforms CO2 into ethyl alcohol.
The Sky is the Limit, Literally
Air Company takes captured carbon dioxide and combines it with hydrogen. They are source-agnostic so they can take CO2 from anywhere. The hydrogen is created within Air Company’s facilities in Brooklyn, which is powered by renewable sources: a mixture of solar and wind.
When they combine the carbon dioxide and hydrogen together inside their reactors, the reaction that’s caused creates a mixture of alcohols, paraffins, aromatics, and water together. This is then used as the basis of their products, in this case, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).
“What we’re seeing from an airline perspective in the US and Europe, is because of legislative changes, it’s helping drive consumer sentiment for wanting airlines to go green. But we need more of it.”
On a Path to Scale
Air Company’s business plan is based on this question: “How can we use our early stage of technology when volumes are low and costs are high to shape a pathway towards really large industries, such as aviation, where the outputs needed are massive and the cost needs to be very very low?”
Gregory says the foundational backbone of the company was to “create the technology and make it work, first and foremost.” While that was always the focal point, the company ended up making revenue along the pathway to that scale through their vodka and fragrance lines.
It’s worth noting that the principles of the technology have existed before, and conceptually Air Company’s method builds on what has been done prior. Similar companies and consortiums have developed methods with principles of direct air capture and hydrogen to create SAF, such as the Take-off project EU.
What sets Air Company apart is their proprietary AIRMADE™ technology that imitates the recipe of photosynthesis. It transforms carbon dioxide into impurity-free alcohols that can be used to create a variety of consumer goods. The only three inputs that are required are air (carbon dioxide), water, and sun (renewable energy).
Launching initially with a carbon-negative vodka, Air Vodka, Air Company is now producing carbon-converted Air Spray hand sanitiser and Air Eau de Parfum, among other consumer innovations in the pipeline.
However, Air Company has been able to take things further and has created a single-step 100% drop-in sustainable aviation fuel made from carbon dioxide.
A Single-Step Process for SAF
Prior methods of producing synthetic fuel relied on natural gas, or the Fischer-Tropsch process developed in 1925. This process is a catalytic chemical reaction where carbon monoxide and hydrogen in syngas (a mixture of both) are converted into hydrocarbons. The technology developed by Air Company simplifies this multi-step conversion process into a single-step process, allowing the creation of fuel-grade paraffins.
By completing it in a single-step process, and by creating a fuel that does not need any blending whatsoever, it is in and of itself a cost-effective and efficient solution.
JetBlue, Boom Supersonic, Virgin Atlantic and the US Air Force are just a few of the customers Air Company works with. They’ve also worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to make rocket fuel from captured CO2 and recently won an additional grant with them to continue its research and development of kerosene-based rocket fuel.
“The ability to innovate for space and how that can translate on earth, NASA allows us to work on technology innovation without cost in mind; unlike the private commercial sector where cost is everything. When you have the ability to work on things without necessarily factoring in cost in mind, it really stirs innovation”, says Gregory.
With their growing, global customer footprint, Air Company will soon open facilities outside the U.S. and is set to build SAF production plants in Asia and Europe.
Glass half full
Gregory Constantine tells us he’s an optimist.
With 27 years to reach the industry’s net zero targets, he believes aviation is on the right track and that the industry needs more companies working on SAF.
When asked about the competition, he believes that there isn’t enough of it. From his perspective, the fact that only a few companies have been able to fly test flights on SAF is a problem. He believes that collaboration is what is needed in order for it to be successful and produced at scale.
Though the aviation industry is working to rapidly increase the amount of sustainable aviation fuel available, E-Fuels developed by Air Company and a number of other industry players may end up being a better long term bet than biofuels. That’s because there are a number of questions around biofuels, for example when it comes to land use and feedstock supplies.
By comparison, Air Company uses an infinite resource, CO2, and is betting that renewable energy will scale up to allow it to produce SAF at volume and at a competitive price. Obviously, simplifying the way SAF is made, which the company claims to have done, could also prove crucial in that regard.
However, in the aviation industry, momentum also counts for a lot and here Air Company has already received important votes of confidence from NASA, the US Air Force, Virgin Atlantic and JetBlue, just to name a few. As a result, it’s realistic to imagine that Air Company will only grow from here, and that its fuel will power aircraft in decades to come.
In summary, climate change and the aviation industry’s path to net zero by 2050 is dependent on new solutions to decarbonise air travel. The aviation industry is a leading contributor to excess CO2 in our atmosphere, and Air Company shares how they are playing their part in doing something about it.
Air Company is one of a number of really innovative companies making products out of ‘thin air’ or CO2. We profiled a number of others in our carbon removal power list. To read more, click here.
Our Sustainability in the Air podcast is powered by SimpliFlying which has been helping build trust in travel for over a decade.
This season of the podcast is brought to you by Cirium and CarbonClick. As a sustainability partner, Cirium helps the aviation industry gain a much clearer view of carbon emissions and develop methods to reduce them, enabling on the industry promise to fly sustainably. CarbonClick is the industry leader in managing transparent carbon offsetting programs for individuals and top global airlines.