Airline fuel made of air

What if instead of getting carbon out of the ground to make fuel and other petrochemical products, we could just take it straight out of the air?

That’s the promise of Twelve, a “carbon transformation” company, whose name refers to the Carbon-12 isotope – the most abundant carbon on Earth. They have developed technology that can take existing CO2 and break it apart to form new industrially-useful carbon-based products.

The process is called carbon dioxide electrolysis, which Twelve likens to “industrial photosynthesis”. Just as plants take water, CO2 and sunlight and use them to produce oxygen and carbon-based products, Twelve’s carbon transformation uses water, CO2 and renewable energy to produce oxygen and carbon-based products.

The CO2 raw materials can be sequestered from the air or captured right from the polluting source, which their carbon transformation technology – a suitcase-sized membrane electrode assembly (MEA) with the converting power of 37,000 trees, or 64 football fields of forest – uses to produce the petrochemical and fuel building blocks that form the basis of all industrial petrochemical products.

Physical examples of what they’re branding “CO2Made” products include lenses for sunglasses, laundry detergent, and car parts built in partnership with Mercedes Benz. But much of the excitement around Twelve focuses on how they could transform the aviation fuel industry.

Aviation accounts for about 3% of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions, but green aviation is still a long way off. The first battery-powered aeroplanes have got off the ground, but are currency limited to small passenger loads and relatively short distances. Alternative fuels, like solar fuels, may offer more promise in the short term, but many of the more widespread alternatives like bio based fuels require farmed feedstock biomass, while hydrogen requires building new engines to run on it.

But Twelve is creating “drop-in” fuels that can be used to power existing engines. And a number of airlines are eager to sign up.

Etihad Airways, Alaska Airlines and the US Air Force have all been working with Twelve in independent partnerships to fund and develop the company’s low-carbon E-Jet fuel. According to Twelve, their fuel is produced with 80% lower lifecycle emissions, although actual emission reductions would be tempered by current regulations that require SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuels) to be used in 50/50 blends with conventional jet fuel.

Someday soon, your business flight might be powered by airline fuel that comes from the air, not underground. (And your next cruise, too: with a partnership announced with Virgin Voyages, Twelve has its sights set on displacing fossil fuels in the marine transport industry as well.) With the persistent threat of human-made climate change, by keeping fossil fuels in the ground, Twelve may be able to keep aeroplanes up in the air.