This new factory will turn CO2 into sustainable jet fuel

Startup Twelve broke ground on a commercial-scale facility in Washington state, which it says will be the first in the country to make sustainable aviation fuel from CO2.
By Maria Gallucci

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A passenger plane flies overhead in a gray sky next to a hazy sun
(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly two years ago, the startup Twelve made its first batch of lower-emissions jet fuel at its lab in Berkeley, California. Using electricity, water and carbon dioxide, the company set out to make a synthetic fuel that could replace fossil-based kerosene and, ideally, reduce the outsize greenhouse gas emissions that come from flying airplanes.

Now, Twelve is ramping up to make significantly higher volumes of its E-Jet” fuel. Last week, the eight-year-old startup broke ground on a commercial-scale facility in Moses Lake, Washington, on the site of a former sugar-beet mill. Once up and running by mid-2024, the facility will be the first of its kind in the country to make alternative jet fuel from CO2 and grid power.

Alaska Airlines, Microsoft and Shopify have agreed to buy millions of dollars’ worth of E-Jet from the new plant. Twelve expects to churn out some 40,000 gallons of fuel per year before quickly expanding its production — potentially by as much as tenfold within the first year of operation, Ram Ramprasad, the company’s chief commercial officer, told Canary Media.

This is just our first step,” he said of the facility. 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.”

Twelve claims its alternative fuel can cut life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90 percent compared to petroleum-based kerosene. Burning E-Jet in engines will still emit CO2. But the goal is that by recycling” CO2 — from the waste streams of ethanol refineries, pulp and paper mills, or directly from the sky — the company can keep more of the planet-warming gas from entering the atmosphere.

The groundbreaking event, which was attended by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), arrives at a pivotal moment for the global aviation industry. Airlines are under increasing pressure to decarbonize the tens of thousands of commercial aircraft that carry the world’s passengers and cargo. 

Four people pose for a photo on a dusty lot with a white building and blue sky in the background
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (second from left) speaks at the groundbreaking in Moses Lake with Twelve co-founders (L-R) Etosha Cave, Nicholas Flanders and Kendra Kuhl. (Business Wire)

In 2022, aviation accounted for 2 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, growing faster in recent decades than rail, cargo shipping or road transportation, according to the International Energy Agency.

Emissions from air travel are projected to keep soaring as more planes and more passengers hit the skies. In the United States, during the run-up to the Fourth of July holiday, the Transportation Security Administration said it screened nearly 2.9 million flyers on June 30, marking the busiest day ever in the agency’s history.

Replacing fossil kerosene, which is responsible for the bulk of aviation’s emissions, is an especially difficult task.

Companies are making strides to develop battery-powered planes and hydrogen-fueled jets. (Not far from Twelve’s site in Moses Lake, the startup Universal Hydrogen is test-flying40-passenger plane.) But both batteries and hydrogen are expected to serve mainly commuter and regional flights. That’s because neither solution packs nearly as much energy by volume as kerosene, making it harder to travel longer distances or carry heavier loads.

Ultimately, you still have this whole section of the aviation industry that will rely on liquid fuels and still rely on kerosene,” said Ian Hayton, a lead analyst at Cleantech Group, a research and consulting firm. So then you start thinking, How do I make my kerosene in a different way so it has lower emissions?’”

A clear vial with a white cap holds a clear liquid against a white background
A vial of Twelve's synthetic fuel (Twelve)

Startups like Twelve and global fuel conglomerates alike are all racing to produce sustainable aviation fuel” that can be blended with, and eventually be fully substituted for, fossil kerosene in existing jet engines — but they have a long way to go. Last year, major U.S. airlines consumed some 17.5 billion gallons of jet fuel. Less than 0.1 percent of the total, or 15.8 million gallons, was so-called SAF.

The Biden administration wants to increase that paltry supply to 3 billion gallons of SAF per year by 2030. The effort has received a crucial funding boost under the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides tax credits to alternative fuel producers and nearly $300 million in R&D grants.

More SAF, hold the fat 

For fuel producers, the challenge isn’t just to make greater volumes of SAF but to produce it in completely new ways. Nearly all of the nation’s existing SAF supply comes from processing animal fats and used cooking oil, feedstocks that are in relatively scarce supply and are raising concerns of unintended knock-on climate risks.

Illinois-based LanzaJet, a spinoff of LanzaTech, is making synthetic jet fuel from waste-based” ethanol derived from municipal solid waste, agricultural residues and biomass. The company is currently building what it says is the world’s first ethanol-based alcohol-to-jet” SAF production plant in Georgia, slated to be completed later this year. At full capacity, the Freedom Pines Fuels facility is expected to produce 10 million gallons of aviation fuel and renewable diesel per year.

Another firm, New York–based Air Company, recently signed a $65 million deal with the U.S. Department of Defense to capture CO2 on military bases and turn it into jet fuel. The startup’s process involves combining CO2 and hydrogen in a chemical reactor to produce paraffins — colorless, oily liquids — for sustainable aviation fuel.

Twelve uses another method to turn CO2 and hydrogen into juice for jet engines.

To start, the company procures waste” CO2 from industrial facilities. Twelve has developed its own electrochemical reactor to split carbon dioxide molecules into carbon monoxide using electricity. Engineers then use a separate electrolyzer to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is known as syngas.”

Finally, the team deploys a multistep reaction called the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert the gas into a liquid — one that’s chemically identical to jet fuel made from petroleum.

A small silver mechanical device
Twelve's electrochemical reactor uses catalysts to transform CO2 into jet fuel. (Twelve)

In August 2021, Twelve hit its first major milestone when it successfully proved its technology works during a pilot program with the U.S. Air Force. Today, the company employs more than 275 people and has raised over $200 million from venture capital firms such as DCVC, Breakout Ventures and Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund, as well as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The world’s changed a bit since we did that pilot,” Ramprasad said of the industry’s growing thirst for cleaner fuels.

To produce SAF at its commercial-scale plant, Twelve will initially source CO2 from an ethanol refinery in neighboring Oregon and, later, from pulp and paper facilities in Washington, he said. The Moses Lake facility will draw power from Washington’s electric grid, over two-thirds of which is supplied by hydropower plants. The rest is a mix of fossil gas, renewables, nuclear and a small amount of coal.

Trucks will carry Twelve’s earliest batches of SAF to airports, though once the plant is producing higher volumes, the company said it will send its fuel by railroad.

Turbulence ahead for low-carbon fuels 

As the nation’s SAF supply grows from a mere drop in the bucket to a sizable share of airlines’ jet fuel use, Twelve and other producers are likely to encounter a fresh set of hurdles, said Hayton, the cleantech analyst.

Many power plants and industrial facilities don’t have the infrastructure needed to capture, store, concentrate and transport the CO2 from their waste streams. Even if they did, those plants will likely generate less planet-warming gases over time as industries decarbonize and shift to renewable energy sources. For SAF producers that rely on CO2, a potential solution is to deploy direct air capture” machines that suck the gas directly from the sky, though the technology remains expensive, energy-intensive and unproven at large scales.

Companies that rely on hydrogen to make low-carbon fuels or power planes directly may also struggle to procure enough green” supply. Making hydrogen using renewable electricity — not fossil gas, which is how most hydrogen is made today — will require a massive scale-up of wind, solar and other clean energy projects. At the same time, the growing fleet of battery-powered vehicles and a shift toward all-electric homes and buildings will boost demand for carbon-free power supplies.

Ramprasad said that the availability of electricity is one of the biggest potential limitations when it comes to siting and scaling Twelve’s future SAF facilities. The company is currently eyeing locations for its next plant in the U.S. Corn Belt, where wind farms and CO2-producing ethanol facilities are still widely available.

Along with improving Twelve’s technology and driving down costs, he said, The important thing is making sure we find sites where we can get renewable power and CO2 in a scalable fashion.”

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.