New Tucson factory may help solve climate crisis by creating jet fuel from CO2
Dimensional Energy will make 300 million gallons of fuel harvested from carbon dioxide for United Airlines
A few cargo containers and a modest tower bristling with equipment on the campus of the University of Arizona's Tech Park might be the key to solving a major problem in modern life: the overwhelming production of carbon dioxide for transportation, plastics, and thousands of consumer products.
Dimensional Energy, located at the UA Tech Park's "Solar Zone," will begin harvesting CO2 and converting the greenhouse gas — through a process that's patented and tightly guarded — into useful goods, ranging from beauty products to wax for surfboards as well as jet fuel. Among the company's early partners is United Airlines, which agreed to purchase 300 million gallons of aviation fuel created by Dimensional Energy produced from carbon dioxide.
Dimensional Energy has already received several nods for an ingenious process that uses 3D-printed ceramics to create a chemical reactor that can quickly turn CO2 into hydrocarbons, the building blocks of many manufactured products. The company received money this year from the Energy Department under the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, as well as millions from an X-Prize focused on removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Now, over the last six months, the company has settled its research and development site at the UA Tech Park in a section known as the Solar Zone.
On Tuesday, company founders, researchers and partners gathered for a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the facility and announce United Airlines' investment.
Jason Salfi, a co-founder and Dimensional Energy's CEO, began his career by building skateboards, starting Comet Skateboards in the 1990s. The company still sells skateboards as a certified "B" corporation, a measure of a company's social and environmental impact. Comet builds boards with "eco-effective processes" and attempts "closed-loop manufacturing"—which means the materials used to build skateboards can be recycled.
Salfi studied Natural Resources Management in college, and he sought to build his company as part of a "circular economy," one that harvests materials and seeks to reuse them without producing waste products. Dimensional Energy is "natural extension" of his goals toward sustainability, he told TucsonSentinel.com.
Salfi still has the languid energy of a skateboarder, and he alluded to Comet before launching into his pitch that Dimensional Energy has found a way to turn CO2 into hydrocarbons in a way that's "very effective," and has found a way to do this "at scale."
Salfi graduated from Cornell University in 1992, and earlier this year, the university nodded to his success, announcing Dimensional Energy received $3.1 million to create a 3-D-printed ceramic rhermocatalytic CO2 reactor/
"The project will use additive manufacturing systems to 3D print ceramic components for innovative chemical reactors that can run on low-carbon electricity sources," according to an article in the Cornell Chronicle, the university's student-run newspaper. "Dimensional Energy’s innovative reactors convert carbon dioxide into a feedstock chemical that can be further processed into a low-carbon, synthetic jet fuel."
On a small stage at Tucson facility, Salfi told a crowd of around 50 people that there's currently a "great emphasis" on energy and renewable energy grids, but there's a "gap" around manufactured products or molecules.
"If we're going to have the basis for a clean energy economy we need to deal with how we deal with our molecules," he said. "It's not just the electrons, it's the molecules," he said, adding the company's founders sought to "bring the world clean and renewable molecules."
"As we transition our energy economy, it's important we don't create a whole new set of problems to be solve by the next generation," he said. Salfi criticized parts of the "green" economy, calling some parts of "carbon negative, carbon neutral, or less carbon intensive a kind of "hand-waving."
Dimensional Energy wants to create economic models that don't "warm the plant or poison the Earth," he said.
The chemistry is complex, and sounds like alchemists hoping they could turn lead into gold, but much of Dimensional Energy's process relies on well-understood and widely-used chemistry that's already used to break apart CO2, including systems used by modern nuclear-powered submarines and by NASA for the International Space Station.
"Our thesis is this, there is enough carbon dioxide right now emitted from smoke stacks and that exists in the atmosphere to replace all the fossil carbon that is used in the production of fuels and products today," Salfi said. "If you take a step back and think about it, that means we could remove the very source of carbon emissions and use past emission to actually make every day with clean energy and carbon dioxide."
"That's really marvelous," he said.
Based in Ithaca, N.Y., the home of Cornell, Dimensional Energy won the X-Prize earlier this year. Launched on Earth Day in 2021, and funded by Peter H. Diamandis and Elon Musk, the X-prize had dozens of companies compete to earn a portion of $100 million prize to develop carbon removal technologies.
As the X-Prize noted, it's becoming clear the world will need "gigaton-scale carbon removal in the coming decades to avoid the worst effects of climate change."
The International Panel on Climate Change estimated the world will need to remove approximately 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by the year 2050 in order to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius, or roughly 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
"As governments, companies, investors, and entrepreneurs make plans to meet this challenge, it is clear that we will need a range of carbon removal solutions to be proven through demonstration and deployment to complement work that is already underway. If humanity continues on a business-as-usual path, the global average temperature could increase 6˚(C) by the year 2100."
Dimensional Energy has partnered with a Canadian company to manage on-site emissions, as well as another facility that can produce 200 barrels of syngas using hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls.
Dimensional Energy can work with other companies that produce large-amounts of carbon, including concrete manufacturers, to harvest CO2 and take a gas that the Environmental Protection Agency has sought to categorize as a pollutant into an asset.
As the company noted on a series of placards surrounding a two-story gantry bristling with pipes and wires, modern life demands liquid fuels including kerosene for airliners on transoceanic flights, and diesel for moving goods around the country. While modern batteries can store increasingly large amounts of energy, these batteries are still too heavy and not energy-dense enough to carry an airliner loaded with passengers across an ocean or continent.
Further, planes create about 3 percent of global emissions, and industry itself is responsible for another 11 percent. "By capturing industrial emissions on the front end and making fuels for aviation, trucking, shipping and other uses that cannot be electrified, Dimensional will help reduce global emissions on the gigaton scale," the company said.
Dimensional Energy could 'transform the aviation industry'
"As the only airline committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 without relying on carbon offsets, we recognized that our collaboration with Dimensional would not only help meet our sustainable aviation fuel goals, but could transform the aviation industry," said United Airlines Ventures President Mike Leskinen.
"The airlines are going to be one of the most difficult industries to de-carbonize, and our competitors are offsets," he said. However, offsets are "not really changing the carbon in the atmosphere. And, it takes intrepid entrepreneurs like Jason to do it the right way." Leskinen noted there's been "little innovation" in aerospace since deregulation in the 1980s, and while aircraft companies are working on supersonic planes, vertical take-off, and other innovations, the industry needs to remove carbon. While batteries can help short-hop flights, Leskinen said the goal needs to be sustainable fuel sources.
He noted that United Airlines has "spent more on sustainable aviation fuel than the rest of the industry has combined," and currently the airlines are making fuel harvested from fats, oils and greases or biofuels. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I like french fries, but I'm not eating more french fries and I am traveling more. There's only a scarce supply of that feedstock, and as that feedstock is bid up, so goes the cost of sustainable fuel. When you buy more of it, it doesn't go down in price and there's no economy of scale."
However, Dimensional Energy's process is "limitless" as with supplies of carbon dioxide and clean green energy mean the process could scale easily, he said.
Dimensional Energy's current plan is a proverbial drop in the bucket for United Airlines, which used about 1.2 billion gallons so far in 2022, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. U.S. carriers consumed about 13.8 billion gallons of jet fuel in 2021, at a cost of $1.98 per gallon, BTS said.
All told, energy production accounts for about 73 percent of global emissions, while industry creates around 5.2 percent of emissions—including around 3.6 percent for chemical and petrochemical processes. Concrete production is about 3 percent of global emissions, alone. Food production, by comparison, accounts for about 1 percent of global emissions.
Since the 1950s, the production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases has spiked, rising from around 4.25 billion tons of CO2 to 37.12 billions tons this year. Researchers have warned greenhouse gases will rapidly increase global temperatures, melting large glaciers and polar ice, and raising global seas. Moreover, the rising temperatures are likely to massively impact global food sources, and cause the extinction of thousands of species.
And, Dimensional Energy hopes to create a "drop-in" process to produce "alternative fuels that abate emissions," and also replace the feed stock used to make consumer products "from fabrics to food, paints to lubricants, cosmetics to crayons."
"We offer a path to providing life-affirming products that will secure the climate and global supply chain for generations to come," the company promises.
Using a Fischer Tropsch reactor—a chemical reaction that converts carbon monoxide and hydrogen into "syngas" or synthetic fuel—the company can squeeze CO2 into a white, waxy substance. During a demonstration workers pulled a small amount, filling two small glass bottles with something that's akin to coconut oil.
The process needs heat, but that can be created by any energy source. As the company demonstrated earlier this year, sunlight collected by a dish-shaped collector can create enough heat to start breaking apart CO2.
A blue barrel contains "pucks" or dinner-plate sized hunks of the wax. From this material, thousands of products can be made. Furthermore, because the "feed stock" is essentially pure CO2, there's less worry about contaminants, said Dr. Brad Brennan, chief science officer at the Dimensional Energy.
"Dimensional Energy has developed a platform that can leverage the trillions of dollars of existing infrastructure that our society relies upon for food, clothing, shelter, and transportation for a transition to a circular economy," said Salfi. "Dimensional has the partnerships and patented and proprietary technology to make a meaningful reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions today"
He noted the recent Inflation Reduction Act, signed earlier this year by President Joe Biden, means many business will seek to capture CO2 emissions. Some companies can store CO2 underground, however, this isn't always possible, and Dimensional can use CO2 as the ingredients for "renewable hydrocarbons" and reduce the need for fossil fuels.
Both of Arizona's U.S. senators praised the company.
“Arizona leads in innovation, and we’re proud of Dimensional Energy’s groundbreaking efforts to produce sustainable aviation fuel and products that will boost
jobs and promote a cleaner environment," said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who serves as the chair of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee.
"Dimensional Energy’s new facility in Tucson will create hundreds of jobs while reducing carbon emissions. It’s amazing to see the work of Arizona’s
innovators, and I look forward to the impact that this new plant will have on our community," said Sen. Mark Kelly. "Congratulations to the whole Dimensional Energy team on this exciting milestone."
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said Dimensional Energy is a sign Tucson has become a "hub for innovation and research and we are so pleased to host Dimensional Energy's operations at Tech Parks Arizona."
"Thank you to company founder, Jason Salfi for inviting my team to take part in yesterday's demonstration and site launch," she said on Facebook.
"Dimensional Energy has developed a platform that can leverage the trillions of dollars of existing infrastructure that our society relies upon for food, clothing, shelter, and transportation for a transition to a circular economy,” said Salfi. "Dimensional has the partnerships and patented and proprietary technology to make a meaningful reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions today."