Steven Cherry Hi this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.
In 2014, two Google engineers, writing in the pages of IEEE Spectrum, noted that “if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability.” Citing the work of climatologist James Hansen, they continued: “To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form.”
One alternative is to grab carbon dioxide as it’s produced, and stuff it underground or elsewhere. People have been talking about CCS, which alternatively stands for carbon capture and storage, or carbon capture and sequestration, for well over a decade. But you can look around, for example at Exxon-Mobil’s website, and see how much progress hasn’t been made.
In fact, in 2015, a bunch of mostly Canadian energy producers decided on a different route. They went to the XPRIZE people and funded what came to be called the Carbon XPRIZE to, as a Spectrum article at the time said, turn “CO2 molecules into products with higher added value.”
In 2018, the XPRIZE announced 10 finalists, who divvied up a $5 million incremental prize. The prize timeline called for five teams each to begin an operational phase in two locations, one in Wyoming and the other in Alberta, culminating in a $20 million grand prize. And then the coronavirus hit, rebooting the prize timeline.
One of the more unlikely finalists emerged from the hipsterish Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Their solution to climate change: vodka. Yes, vodka. The finalist, which calls itself the Air Company, takes carbon dioxide that has been liquified and distills it into ethanol, and then fine-tunes it into vodka. The resulting product is, the company claims, not only carbon-neutral but carbon negative.
The scientific half of founding duo of the Air Company is Stafford Sheehan—Staff, as he’s known. He had two startups under his belt by the time he graduated from Boston College. He started his next venture while in graduate school at Yale. He’s a prolific researcher but he’s determined to find commercially viable ways to reduce the carbon in the air, and he’s my guest today, via Skype.
Staff, welcome to the podcast.
Stafford Sheehan Thanks very much for having me. Steven.
Steven Cherry Staff, I’m sure people have been teasing you that maybe vodka doesn’t solve the problem of climate change entirely, but it can make us forget it for a while. But in serious engineering terms, the Air Company process seems a remarkable advance. Talk us through it. It starts with liquefied carbon dioxide.
Stafford Sheehan Yeah, happy to. So, we use liquefied carbon dioxide because we source it offsite in in Bushwick. But really, we can just feed any sort of carbon dioxide into our system. We combine the carbon dioxide with water by first splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Water is H2O, so we use what’s called an electrolyzer to split water into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas and then combine the hydrogen together with carbon dioxide in a reactor over proprietary catalysts that I and my coworkers developed over the course of the last several years. And that produces a mixture of ethanol and water that we then distill to make a very, very clean and very, very pure vodka.
Steven Cherry Your claim that the product is carbon-negative is based on a life-cycle analysis. The calculation starts with an initial minus of the amount of carbon you take out of the atmosphere. And then we start adding back the carbon and carbon equivalents needed to get it into a bottle and onto the shelf of a hipster bar. That first step where your supplier takes carbon out of the atmosphere, puts it into liquefied form and then delivers it to your distillery. That puts about 10 percent of that that carbon back into the atmosphere.
Stafford Sheehan Yeah, 10 to 20 percent. When a tonne of carbon dioxide arrives in liquid form at our Bushwick facility, we assume that it took 200 kilograms of CO2 emitted—not only for the capture of the carbon dioxide; most of the carbon dioxide that we get actually comes from fuel ethanol fermentation. So we take the carbon dioxide emissions of the existing ethanol industry and we’re turning that into a higher purity ethanol. But it’s captured from those facilities and then it’s liquefied and transported to our Bushwick facility. And if you integrate the lifecycle carbon emissions of all of the equipment, all the steel, all of the transportation, every part of that process, then you you get about a maximum life-cycle CO2 emissions for the carbon dioxide of 200 kilograms per ton. So we still have eight hundred kilograms to play with at our facility.
Steven Cherry So another 10 percent gets eaten up by that electrolysis process.
Stafford Sheehan Yeah. The electrolysis process is highly dependent on what sort of electricity you use to power it with. We use a company called Clean Choice. And we’re we work very closely with a number of solar and wind deployers in New York State to make sure that all the electricity that’s used at our facility is solar or wind. And if you use wind energy, that’s the most carbon-friendly energy source that we have available there. Right now, the mix that we have, which is certified through Con Edison, is actually very heavily wind and a little bit of solar. But that was the lowest lifecycle-intensity electricity that we could get. So we get ... it’s actually a little bit less than 10 percent of that is consumed by electrolysis. So the electrolysis is actually quite green as long as you power it with a very low-carbon source of electricity.
Steven Cherry And the distilling process, even though it’s solar-based, takes maybe another 13 percent or so?
Stafford Sheehan It’s in that ballpark. The distilling process is powered by an electric steam boiler. So we use the same electricity that we use to split water, to heat our water for the distillation system. So we have a fully electric distillery process. You could say that we’ve electrified vodka distilling.
Steven Cherry There’s presumably a bit more by way of carbon equivalents when it comes to the bottles the vodka comes in, shipping it to customers, and so on, but that’s true of any vodka that ends up on that shelf of any bar, and those also have a carbon-emitting farming process—whether it’s potatoes or sugar beets or wheat or whatever—that your process sidesteps.
Stafford Sheehan Yes. And I think one thing that’s really important is, this electrification act aspect by electrifying or all of our distillery processes, for example, if you’re boiling water using a natural gas boiler, your carbon emissions are going to be much, much higher as compared to boiling water using an electric steam boiler that’s powered with wind energy.
Steven Cherry It seems like if you just poured the vodka down the drain or into the East River, you would be benefiting the environment. I mean, would it be possible to do that on an industrial scale as a form of carbon capture and storage that really works?
Stafford Sheehan Yeah. I don’t think you’d want to pour good alcohol down the drain in any capacity just because the alcohol that we make can offset the use of fossil fuel alcohol.
So by putting the alcohol that we make—this carbon negative alcohol that we make—into the market, that means you have to make less fossil alcohol. And I’m including corn ethanol in that because so many fossil fuels go into its production. But that makes it so that our indirect CO2, our indirect CO2 utilization is very, very high because we’re offsetting a very carbon-intensive product.
Steven Cherry That’s interesting. I was thinking that maybe you could earn carbon credits and sell them for more than you might make with having a, you know, another pricey competitor to Grey Goose and Ketel One.
Stafford Sheehan The carbon credit, the carbon credit system is still very young, especially in the US.
We also … our technology still has a ways to scale between our Bushwick facility—which is, I would say, a micro distillery—and a real bona industrial process, which … we’re working on that right now.
Steven Cherry Speaking of which, though, it is rather pricey stuff at this point, isn’t it? Did I read $65 or $70 a bottle?
Stafford Sheehan Yeah, it’s pricey not only because you pay a premium for our electricity, for renewable electricity, but we also pay a premium for carbon dioxide that, you know, has that that only emits 10 to 20 percent of the carbon intensity of its actual weight, so we pay a lot more for the inputs than is typical—sustainability costs money—and also we’re building these systems, they’re R&D systems, and so they’re more costly to operate on a R&D scale, on kind of our pilot plant scale. As we scale up, the cost will go down. But at the scales we’re at right now, we need to be able to sell a premium product to be able to have a viable business. Now, on top of that, the product is also won a lot of awards that put it in that price category. It’s won three gold medals in the three most prestigious blind taste test competitions. And it’s won a lot of other spirits and design industry awards that enable us to get that sort of cost for it.
Steven Cherry I’m eager to do my own blind taste testing. Vodka is typically 80 proof, meaning it’s 60 percent water. You and your co-founder went on an epic search for just the right water.
Stafford Sheehan That we did. We tested over ... probably over one hundred and thirty different types of water. We tried to find which one was best to make vodka with using the very, very highly pure ethanol that comes out of our process. And it’s a very nuanced thing. Water, by changing things like the mineral content, the pH, by changing the very, very small trace impurities in the water—that in many cases are good for you—can really change the way the water feels in your mouth and the way that it tastes. And adding alcohol to water just really amplifies that. It lowers the boiling point and it makes it more volatile so that it feels different in your mouth. And so different types of water have a different mouth feel; they have a different taste. We did a lot of research on water to be able to find the right one to mix with our vodka.
Steven Cherry Did you end up where you started with New York water?
Stafford Sheehan Yes. In in a in a sense, we are we’re very, very close to where we started.
Steven Cherry I guess we have to add your vodka to the list that New Yorkers would claim includes New York’s bagels and New York’s pizza as uniquely good, because if their water.
Stafford Sheehan Bagels, pizza, vodka ... hand sanitizer ...
Steven Cherry It’s a well-balanced diet. So where do things stand with the XPRIZE? I gather you finally made it to Canada for this operational round, but take us through the journey getting there.
Stafford Sheehan So I initially entered the XPRIZE when it was soliciting for very first submissions—I believe it was 2016—and going through the different stages, we had at the end of 2017, we had very rigorous due diligence on our prototype scale. And we passed through that and got good marks and continuously progressed through to the finals where we are now. Now, of course, coronavirus kind of threw both our team and many other teams for a loop, delaying deployment, especially for us: We’re the only American team deploying in Canada. The other four teams that are deploying at the ACCTC [Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre] are all Canadian teams. So being the only international team in a time of a global pandemic that, you know, essentially halted all international travel—and a lot of international commerce—put some substantial barriers in our way. But over the course of the last seven months or so, we’ve been able to get back on our feet. And I’m currently sitting in quarantine in Mississauga, Ontario, getting ready for a factory-acceptance test. That’s scheduled to happen right at the same time as quarantine ends. So we’re gonna be at the end of this month landing our skid in Alberta for the finals and then in November, going through diligence and everything else to prove out its operation and then operating it through the rest of the year.
Steven Cherry I understand that you weren’t one of the original 10 finalists named in 2018.
Stafford Sheehan No, we were not. We were the runner-up. There was a runner-up for each track—the Wyoming track and the Alberta track. And ultimately, there were teams that dropped out or merged for reasons within their own businesses. We were given the opportunity to rejoin the competition. We decided to take it because it was a good proving ground for our next step of scale, and it provided a lot of infrastructure that allowed us to do that at a reasonable cost—at a reasonable cost for us and at a reasonable cost in terms of our time.
Steven Cherry Staff, you were previously a co-founder of a startup called Catalytic Innovations. In fact, you were a 2016 Forbes magazine, 30-under-30 because of it. What was it? And is it? And how did it lead to Air Company and vodka?
Stafford Sheehan For sure. That was a company that I spun out of Yale University, along with a professor at Yale, Paul Anastas. We initially targeted making new catalysts for fuel cell and electrolysis industries, focusing around the water oxidation reaction. So to turn carbon dioxide—or to produce fuel in general using renewable electricity—there are three major things that need to happen. You need to have a very efficient renewable energy source. Trees, for example, use the sun. That’s photosynthesis. You have to be able to oxidize water into oxygen gas. And that’s why trees breathe out oxygen. And you have to be able to use the protons and electrons that come out of water oxidation to either reduce carbon dioxide or through some other method, produce a fuel. So I studied all three of those when I was in graduate school, and upon graduating, I spun out Catalytic Innovations that focused on the water oxidation reaction and commercializing materials that more efficiently produced oxygen for all of The man-made processes such as metal refining that do that chemistry. And that company found its niche in corrosion—anti-corrosion and corrosion protection—because one of the big challenges, whenever you’re producing oxygen, be it for renewable fuels or be it to produce zinc or to do a handful of different electrorefining and electrowinning processes in the metal industry. You always have a very serious corrosion problem. Did a lot of work in that industry in Catalytic Innovations, and they still continue to do work there, to this day.
Steven Cherry You and your current co-founder, Greg Constantine, are a classic match—a technologist, in this case an electrochemist and a marketer. If this were a movie, you would have met in a bar drinking vodka. And I understand you actually did meet at a bar. Were you drinking vodka?
Stafford Sheehan No, we were actually drinking whiskey. So I didn’t ... I actually I’m not a big fan of vodka pre-Air Company, but it was the product that really gave us the best value proposition where really, really clean, highly pure ethanol is most important. So I’ve always been more of a whiskey man myself, and Greg and I met over whiskey in Israel when we were on a trip that was for Forbes. You know, they sent us out there because we were both part of their 30-Under-30 list and we became really good friends out there. And then several months later, fast forward, we started Air Company.
Steven Cherry Air Company’s charter makes it look like you would like to go far beyond vodka when it comes to finding useful things to do with CO2. In the very near term, you turned to using your alcohol in a way that contributes to our safety.
Stafford Sheehan Yeah. So we we had always planned the air company, not the air vodka company. We had always planned to go into several different verticals with ultra-high-purity ethanol that we create. And spirits is one of the places where you can realize the value proposition of a very clean and highly pure alcohol, very readily—spirits, fragrance is another one. But down the list a little bit is sanitizer, specifically hand sanitizer. And when coronavirus hit, we actually pivoted all of our technology because there was a really, really major shortage of sanitizer in New York City. A lot of my friends from graduate school that had kind of gone more on the medical track were telling me that the hospitals that they worked in, in New York didn’t have any hand sanitizer. And when the hospitals—for the nurses and doctors—ran out of hand sanitizer, that means you really have a shortage. And so we pivoted all of our technology to produce sanitizer in March. And for three months after that, we gave it away. We donated it to these hospitals, to the fire department, to NYPD and to other organizations in the city that needed it most.
Yeah, the hand sanitizer, I like to think, is also a very premium product. You can’t realize the benefits of the very, very clean and pure ethanol that we use for it as readily as you can with the bad guys since you’re not tasting it. But we did have to go through all of the facility registrations and that sort of thing to make the sanitizer because it is classified as a drug. So our pilot plant in and in Bushwick, which was a converted warehouse, I used to tell people in March that I always knew my future was going to be sitting in a dark warehouse in Bushwick making drugs. But, you know, never thought that it was actually going to become a reality.
Steven Cherry That was in the short term. By now, you can get sanitizer in every supermarket and Home Depot. What are the longer-term prospects for going beyond vodka?
Stafford Sheehan Longer term, we’re looking at commodity chemicals, even going on to fuel. So longer term, we’re looking at the other verticals where we can take advantage of the high-purity value proposition of our ethanol—like pharmaceuticals, as a chemical feedstock, things like that. But then as we scale, we want to be able to make renewable fuel as well from this and renewable chemicals. Ultimately, we want to we want to get to world scale with this technology, but we need to take the appropriate steps to get there. And what we’re doing now are the stepping-stones to scaling it.
Steven Cherry It seems like if you could locate the distilling operation right at the ethanol plant, you would just be making more ethanol for them with their waste product, avoid a lot of shipping and so forth. It, you would just become of value add to their industry.
Stafford Sheehan That is something that we hope to do in the long term. You know what, our current skids are fairly small scale where we couldn’t take a massive amount of CO2 with them. But as we scale, we do hope to get there gradually when we get to larger scales, like talking about several barrels per day rather than liters per hour, which is the scale we’re at now.
A lot of stuff you can turn CO2 into. One of the prime examples is calcium carbonate. C03-[[minus]] CO2 is CO2. You can very easily convert carbon dioxide into things like that for building materials. So pour concrete for different parts of bricks and things like that. There are a lot of different ways to mineralized CO2 as well. Like you can inject it into the ground. That will also turn it into carbon-based minerals. Beyond that, as far as more complex chemical conversion goes, the list is almost endless. You can make plastics. You can make pharmaceutical materials. You can make all sorts of crazy stuff from CO2. Almost any of the base chemicals that have carbon in them can come from CO2. And in a way, they do come from CO2 because all the petrochemicals that we mine from the ground, that they’re from photosynthesis that happened over the course of the last two billion years.
Have you ever seen the movie Forest Gump? There’s a part in that where Bubba, Gump’s buddy in the Vietnam War, talks about all the things you can do with shrimp. And it kind of goes on and on and on. But I could say the same about CO2. You can make plastic. You can make clothes. You can make sneakers. You can make alcohol. You can make any sort of chemical carbon-based ethylene, carbon monoxide, formic acid, methanol, ethanol. And there ... The list goes on. Just about any carbon-based chemical you can think of. You can make from CO2.
Steven Cherry Would it be possible to pull carbon dioxide out of a plastic itself and thereby solve two problems at once?
Yeah, you could you could take plastic and capture the CO2 that’s emitted when you either incinerate it or where you gasify it. That is a strategy that’s used in certain places, gasification of waste, municipal waste. It doesn’t give you CO2, but it actually gives you something that you can do chemistry with a little more easily. It gives you a syngas—a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. So, there are a lot of different strategies that you can use to convert CO2 into things better for the planet than global warming.
Steven Cherry If hydrogen is a byproduct of that, you have a ready use for it.
Stafford Sheehan Yeah, exactly, that is one of the many places where we could source feedstock materials for our process. Our process is versatile and that’s one of the big advantages to it.
If we get hydrogen, as a byproduct of chloralkali production, for example, we can use that instead of having to source the electrolyzer. If our CO2 comes from direct air capture, we can use that. And that means we can place our plants pretty much wherever there’s literally air, water and sunlight. As far as the products that come out, liquid products that are made from CO2 have a big advantage in that they can be transported and they’re not as volatile, obviously, as the gases.
Steven Cherry Well, Staff, it’s a remarkable story, one that certainly earns you that XPRIZE finalist berth. We wish you great luck with it. But it seems like your good fortune is self-made and assured, in any event to the benefit of the planet. Thank you for joining us today.
Stafford Sheehan Thanks very much for having me, Steven.
Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Staff Sheehan, co-founder of the Air Company, a Brooklyn startup working to actively undo the toxic effects of global warming.
This interview was recorded October 2, 2020. Our thanks to Miles of Gotham Podcast Studio for our audio engineering; our music is by Chad Crouch.
Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.
Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.
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