Guaranteeing an uninterrupted supply of fuel to deployed Air Force units is vital, dangerous, difficult and costly – a logistics headache that has plagued the USAF since its foundation. Now, an experimental program is seeking to demonstrate whether the Air Force could convert CO2 into operationally viable aviation fuel near the front lines anywhere on the planet.
The fuel is called “E-Jet” and the process is being evaluated by the Pentagon’s little-known Air Force Operational Energy (OE) office. Established in 2009, OE is charged with ensuring the reliability and resiliency of the jet fuel that is the life-blood of USAF operations. The Air Force’s status as DoD’s largest energy consumer and the far-flung distances over which energy (jet fuel) must be distributed to facilitate its operations gave rise to office.
In 2020, OE gave a California-based startup called Twelve the green light to demonstrate its carbon transformation methodology, a carbon-neutral process that the company claims can turn carbon dioxide from the air into nearly any chemical, material, or fuel, including jet fuel.
This past August, Twelve successfully produced E-Jet from CO2, proving the process worked. The firm is now attempting to scale the technology, potentially setting up the conditions to create the synthetic carbon-neutral fuel in quantities the Air Force can use to blend (up to 50%) with current jet fuel. The first phase of the project is scheduled to conclude in December with a report detailing the process and findings.
That report will be closely scrutinized by OE and a variety of interested parties in the wider energy development and scientific community. The possibility of producing carbon-neutral liquid fuels from CO2 is a tantalizing one. If E-Jet can cost-effectively approach the energy density of liquid fossil fuels combined with their portability, it could leave a positive mark on the energy landscape.
A scalable, carbon-neutral drop-in supplement for fossil fuels capable of integrating into our existing infrastructure could also have significant environmental and market impact. Twelve estimates its system could address “up to 10% of total global emissions and up to 50% of difficult to decarbonize industrial emissions”.
If Twelve’s synthetic fuel can go beyond supplementation to replacement, it could seriously challenge the electrification path that the present government and various sectors of industry appear dead-set on for mobility and static applications.
And if it can be produced in localized fashion as the Air Force hopes, it might reduce the logistics burden of distributing fuel, freeing up forward-deployed USAF forces in a way that transcends the tactical and verges into the strategic.
CO2-to-liquid fuel processes have been studied for years, more aggressively in the last decade and a half. Among others, Harvard, Rice University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have active programs with differing approaches to producing synthetic fuels.
Synthetic liquid fuels are typically a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen known as syngas. They are produced through burning biomass, coal, or natural gas. The process of converting syngas into liquid hydrocarbon fuels is not new. Known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, the multistep method was created in the 1920s by German scientists and aided the German war effort during World War II.
Twelve’s carbon transformation technology purportedly eliminates the need for fossil fuels, producing syngas by recycling CO2 captured from the air and – using only water and renewable power (electricity) as inputs – transforming the CO2. The company says it has a new electrochemical reactor and proprietary catalyst that electrifies CO2 and water, which creates synthesis gas (CO + H2).
The resulting syngas is then refined into carbon neutral jet fuel. Twelve asserts that the process can be employed “at industrial scale and warp speed, turning CO2 into critical chemicals, materials and fuels.”
The company adds that E-Jet is drop-in ready and certified, with the same quality and performance as fossil fuel, “but has over 90% lower lifecycle emissions” thanks to sourcing the carbon in the fuel from the air, not from oil. It also has fewer contaminants than petroleum-based fuels, resulting in a cleaner burn.
With local water and electricity inputs, the Air Force could theoretically take Twelve’s electrochemical reactor with its novel catalyst to forward deployed locations and make its own synthetic fuel. Operational Energy says Twelve’s system could allow deployed units to create E Jet on demand, “without the need for highly skilled fuel experts on site”. The technology would provide a supplemental source to petroleum-based fuels, decreasing demand in areas that are typically difficult to deliver fuel to.
According to OE, Twelve’s demonstration produced Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene, which can be blended with petroleum up to a maximum of 50%. Cutting the fuel supply demand of deployed units by as much as half holds great appeal for the Air Force which points out that at the height of the war in Afghanistan, attacks on fuel and water convoys accounted for more than 30% of casualties.
Adding to the appeal of a portable supplement is the fact that fuel demand for USAF (and Army, Marine, Navy) weapons systems is expected to increase as advanced systems and over-the-horizon operations require increasing levels of power.
Twelve appears to have remained largely in stealth mode, quietly touting its Air Force demonstration and gaining notice in a recent Reuters article. Reuters observed that carbon capture and carbon recycling firms like Twelve have raised over $800 million thus far in 2021, more than tripling 2020 investment.
The company’s electro-catalytic process derived from breakthrough discoveries by Stanford University researchers Dr. Etosha Cave and Dr. Kendra Kuhl in the first half of the last decade. Cave and Kuhl co-founded a firm called “Opus 12” which eventually just became Twelve and added fellow Stanford grad and entrepreneur, Nicholas Flanders as co-founder.
The company maintains that its system is applicable more broadly to carbon-based products from auto parts to sunglasses, replacing the fossil carbon in critical chemicals with renewable, recycled carbon from CO2, eliminating emissions from thousands of essential goods.
If the pending report to Air Force Operational Energy concludes that Twelve’s carbon transformation system can be matched to the USAF’s tactical requirements and fuel demand it would place a critical stamp of approval on the system. Successive phases of the project would likely deal with scalability and the challenges of water/power inputs.
Successfully meeting these and deploying with the modular system could generate additional waves of military application and commercialization. If that happens, the front lines will be on military battlefields abroad and commercial/political battlefields at home.