US Air Force looks to make jet fuel out of thin air

This project aligns with the U.S. military's commitment to making every base carbon-neutral by 2050.
Ameya Paleja
A stock image of a U.S. Air Force T-38 jet
A stock image of a U.S. Air Force T-38 jet


The U.S. Air Force is keen on getting its hand on technology that can make jet fuel out of thin air. When ready, the technology could help it decentralize its supply chain and reduce risks from possible attacks on its logistic operations in conflict areas.

Militaries around the world are contributors to global emissions. While the numbers are not publicly available, researchers at Lancaster University in the U.K. estimate that emissions from operations of the U.S. Department of Defense alone trump those from most medium-sized countries. Last year, the U.S. military committed to reducing its emissions by 50 percent by the end of the decade and making every base carbon neutral by 2050.

Making aviation fuel from thin air

The U.S. Air Force's move also aims to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Being able to generate fuel onsite will also reduce the emissions associated with the transportation of fossil fuels from refineries to ports and onto air force bases, and even into tankers for mid-air refueling.

The U.S. Air Force has awarded a $65 million contract to Brooklyn, New York-based startup called Air Company. The firm is also known for its other products, such as perfumes and vodka made from carbon dioxide.

To do so, the Air Company traps carbon dioxide from the air and uses electricity from renewable sources to convert them into ethanol-based products. It did this during the hand sanitizer shortages during the pandemic and is hopeful it can replicate the same for the U.S. Air Force at its forward base location in the future too.

Given the scale of fuel required for aviation purposes, Air Company is currently using waste emissions that are generated during the production of biodiesel to generate its sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

US Air Force looks to make jet fuel out of thin air
The long term solution to decarbonizing may lie elsewhere

While this sounds sustainable, the biodiesel industry is also a contributor to emissions as it relies on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and transportation. The process has been found to release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

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Moreover, moving from fossil fuels to SAF is not expected to help reduce carbon emissions. Instead, it will create a carbon loop where emissions can be converted into fuel only to be released again when it is burnt. To reduce their emissions, militaries need to shift to alternative means of powering their aircraft and heavy equipment.

While hydrogen or electric propulsion may be the answer in the future, for now, technology like the one being developed by Air Company could help in recycling carbon and reducing emissions from logistics and transportation.

The piece includes information that was reported in The Hill, Tech Crunch.

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