Waste to wings: Start-up aims for clean, sustainable air travel

“Twelve uses carbon transformation to address emissions and to enable a world made from air, not oil,” - Twelve Co-Founder and CEO, Nicholas Flanders.
Amal Jos Chacko
Representational image of sustainable travel.jpg
Representational image of sustainable travel.


An eight-year-old start-up has been the recipient of millions of dollars worth of orders from the likes of Microsoft and Shopify, and it likely isn’t what you think it is. 

Two years after the company made its first batch of lower-emissions jet fuel at its lab, Twelve has made significant strides toward its goals of developing a synthetic fuel to replace fossil-based kerosene in the aviation industry and has now broke ground on a commercial-scale facility in Moses Lake, Washington to produce its revolutionary “E-Jet” fuel.

This fuel, produced using Twelve's cutting-edge carbon transformation technology which utilizes electricity, water, and carbon dioxide (CO2), creates critical chemicals, materials, and fuels conventionally made from fossil fuels. 

The process, done in partnership with Emerging Fuels Technology, results in a synthetic fuel with claimed reductions in emissions of lower lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to a remarkable 90% compared to conventional petroleum-based jet fuel.

“This is just our first step,” said Ram Ramprasad, the company’s chief commercial officer, to Canary Media. “Part of our scale-up plan is to repeat this [process] very quickly and build much bigger facilities… up and down the middle of the country.”

Waste to wings: Start-up aims for clean, sustainable air travel
Washington Governor Jay Inslee (second from left) speaks at the groundbreaking in Moses Lake today with Twelve co-founders, CEO and CTO.

A Sustainable Solution for a Growing Industry

At such a time with the aviation industry facing mounting pressure to decarbonize as air travel contributes 2 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, airlines are under increasing pressure to find sustainable alternatives to fossil kerosene, which remains the primary source of aviation emissions.

While battery-powered planes and hydrogen-fueled jets offer promising solutions for shorter flights, the challenge lies in long-haul flights that still rely on liquid fuels like kerosene. 

Twelve's E-Jet fuel aims to fill this gap by recycling CO2 from waste streams or directly from the atmosphere, resulting in up to a 90 percent reduction in life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional kerosene.

The company's innovative process involves using renewable energy to transform CO2 and hydrogen into liquid fuel, making it chemically identical to traditional jet fuel. 

Turbulence Ahead: Challenges and Opportunities

As Twelve and other sustainable aviation fuel producers ramp up production, they face new challenges. 

Most existing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) supply comes from animal fats and used cooking oil, which are in limited supply and may raise unintended climate risks. However, Twelve's process of transforming CO2 and hydrogen into jet fuel offers a promising alternative. 

The company procures waste carbon dioxide from industrial facilities and uses an electrochemical reactor to split these molecules into carbon monoxide and a separate electrolyzer to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The resultant “syngas”, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is then converted into liquid fuel through the Fischer-Tropsch process.

While the aviation industry's SAF demand is growing, power plants and industrial facilities need infrastructure to capture and transport CO2 effectively. 

Additionally, hydrogen-based fuel producers may face challenges in procuring enough green hydrogen as the demand for clean energy increases. Making hydrogen using renewable electricity requires a massive scale-up of wind, solar, and other clean energy projects. 

Nevertheless, Twelve remains optimistic about the future, eyeing locations for its next plant in the U.S. Corn Belt, where wind farms and CO2-producing ethanol facilities are still widely available.

Overcoming these hurdles requires strategic site selection near renewable energy sources and CO2-producing facilities. With support from the Biden administration and crucial funding, companies like Twelve are poised to transform the aviation industry and bring cleaner skies to the future.

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