Direct Air Capture: Turning Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

Category Science

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Direct Air Capture is a process by which carbon dioxide is captured from the atmosphere and used to produce fuel. A startup called Twelve is now using this process to make jet fuel, with the US Air Force testing the fuel for safety and Alaska Airlines already agreeing to buy it. There are many factors that suggest this is feasible in the long term, but challenges remain, such as its costly and energy-intensive nature.

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Direct air capture is slowly getting off the ground, with plants up and running in Iceland, Switzerland, the US, and Canada. Much of the carbon these facilities capture is either turned into a solid and stored underground or reused to manufacture various chemicals and industrial products. Now a startup called Twelve is planning to use captured CO2 to make jet fuel.

The company named their carbon conversion platform Opus. The system is modular and can be implemented in existing supply chains, taking CO2 from almost any source. The process uses electrolysis to separate the carbon and oxygen, then recombines the carbon with hydrogen to create fuel. The CO2 will be sourced from nearby ethanol plants, pulp and paper mills, and waste processing facilities.

Around 95 billion gallons of jet fuel were consumed in 2019

The US Air Force tested the fuel to ensure it can be safely used without altering existing plane engines. Replacing half of a plane’s regular fuel with CO2-derived fuel can result in 90 percent fewer lifecycle emissions. Alaska Airlines has already agreed to buy fuel from Twelve.

Twelve broke ground on its factory in Washington state earlier this month. The geographic choice was due to several factors. For one, Seattle has long been a hub for aerospace innovation; SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, AeroTEC, and others all have operations there. Washington also has tax incentives for sustainable aviation fuel. And two-thirds of the state’s electricity is generated by hydropower, giving it one of the highest percentages of clean energy in the country.

Washington State has offers tax incentives for sustainable aviation fuel

The facility will initially produce around 40,000 gallons of fuel a year, eventually scaling up to a million gallons a year. That’s a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool when taken in the context of total consumption, which reached an all-time high of 95 billion gallons in 2019.

So what are the barriers to significantly scaling up production? There’s plenty of CO2 in the atmosphere that needs capturing (more than we’d ever be able to capture and store in 100 years, as a matter of fact), and plenty of demand for jet fuel. Demand for this specific jet fuel could end up being extra-high if its price reaches parity with conventional fuel (it will be more expensive for a while), because it would allow airlines that use it to reduce their carbon footprint.

Twelve's facility in Washington State will initially produce 40,000 gallons of fuel per year and scale up to 1 million

Consumers have already become more brand-conscious, when possible buying products and services from companies that mirror their values. This trend is likely to continue in the future, and conservationism will hopefully only become more and more highly valued among more people.

The biggest determinant of which airline flyers choose will likely still be price, because let’s be honest, we all like a cheap flight. But if the price for a given flight on two different airlines is comparable, consumers would feel good choosing the more planet-friendly option.

The US Air Force tested Twelve's fuel to ensure it is safe to be used for plane engines

The big issue at the moment, though, is that capturing atmospheric carbon is still very costly and energy-intensive. Many direct air capture plants are built in areas that have access to cheap, abundant geothermal energy—like south-western Iceland’s Hellisheiði Power Station.

For DAC to make economic and environmental snese, the process needs to cost an order of magnitude less. Ongoing research on innovative techniques—such as those involving solvents—will need to bear fruit soon for this fuel to become cost-effective.

Alaska Airlines has agreed to purchase the fuel from Twelve

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