Tuesday, April 9, 2024

A startup to use photosynthesis to convert CO2 into sustainable rocket fuel

There has been a growing effort to make rocket launches more sustainable in recent years. This is an important step towards reducing the environmental impact of space exploration.

Brooklyn-based startup AIR COMPANY is working towards making rocket launches more sustainable. Their collaboration with NYU Tandon School of Engineering aims to transform carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into sustainable rocket fuel.

AIR COMPANY researchers are collaborating with Miguel Modestino, director of NYU Tandon’s Sustainable Engineering Initiative (SEI), to develop new applications for their AIRMADE technology. This technology uses a process similar to photosynthesis to convert CO2 into high-performance fuels and chemicals.

The project was even selected for NASA’s highly competitive Phase II Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award in November 2023. This program funds projects in which small businesses work with research institutions for early-stage research and development (R&D) on technologies that advance NASA missions and help solve important problems for the benefit of all.

AIR COMPANY and Modestino, who is also a Donald F. Othmer Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at NYU Tandon, started working together after AIR COMPANY became a part of the Urban Future Lab (UFL) in 2019. As AIR COMPANY needed access to specialized laboratory resources and equipment, they found a partner in NYU Tandon’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, which provided them with the necessary facilities to conduct their research.

This partnership has allowed AIR COMPANY and Tandon to collaborate on sustainability research objectives, including those related to SEI priorities.

“This ongoing collaboration with NYU Tandon School of Engineering has significantly contributed to AIR COMPANY’s success executing projects for NASA,” said Stafford Sheehan, co-founder and CTO of AIR COMPANY. “The team and technology we work with here are world-class, and we look forward to what is next.”

“Our collaboration with AIR COMPANY exemplifies our dedication to sustainability in space exploration and brings us closer to the possibility of human settlement on Mars,” said Modestino. “This partnership underscores the transformative impact of academic-industry alliances, offering students a direct pathway from lab innovations to impactful real-world endeavors.”

AIR COMPANY seems to have a diverse range of partnerships and contracts with various companies and organizations. They appear to have collaborations with airlines like JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic, as well as contracts with the U.S. Air Force, Defense Innovation Unit, and NASA.

They have also received recognition for their products through awards such as Time Best Inventions, Fast Company World Changing Ideas, and the XPRIZE for Carbon Removal. In fact, in 2022, AIR COMPANY and its NYU Tandon collaborators were awarded a NASA Phase I STTR grant to evaluate the feasibility and risks involved in deploying CO2-derived renewable fuel production technology for NASA on Earth, in spacecraft, and on Mars.

The Phase II STTR project that the collaborative team will be working on over the next two years. They will be building upon their Phase I progress, with Modestino’s group leading the way in collecting critical chemical reaction data to train computer models for optimizing fuel production.

Meanwhile, the AIR COMPANY researchers will focus on scaling up output and ensuring that the product meets jet fuel specifications for commercial use, as well as evaluating the feasibility of deploying this renewable fuel technology on Earth and Mars.

The sustainable fuel that the AIR COMPANY team develops could have potential uses beyond rocket fuel. For instance, it could be used on Mars to produce a stable and stable fuel in situ, using only the Martian atmosphere, water, and solar photovoltaic electricity. This could power habitats and other infrastructure on the red planet.