PODCAST: Meet Air Company, turning CO2 emissions into vodka

Carbon XPRIZE finalists Greg Constantine and Stafford Sheehan discuss a technology that turns greenhouse gas emissions into vodka; and that’s just the beginning.

The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is an international competition to turn CO2 emissions into valuable products. 

In a three-part series, Energy Examined interviews three of the ten finalist teams vying for the $20 million grand prize: to learn about their innovations, what got them interested in the battle against climate change, and the ups and downs of competing in an XPRIZE finals. For part 1, Energy Examined host Tracy Larsson chat with Gregory Constantine and Stafford Sheehan, the co-founders of Air Company, a Brooklyn-based company that’s found a way to fight climate change by turning CO2 into vodka–among other things.

The Carbon XPRIZE is in the final stretch run with teams demonstrating their technologies to judges to see who can divert the most carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while generating the most value in terms of end products. 

Full transcript of the podcast:

Tracy: Hello, everyone, I’m Tracy Larsson and this is the Energy Examined podcast. Today, we’re following up on the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. If you haven’t already heard my interview with XPRIZE executive director Marcius Extavour, definitely go back and check that out. Now, the Carbon XPRIZE is an international competition challenging teams to find ways to turn greenhouse gas emissions into useful products. And today we’re learning about Air Company, one of the finalists in the competition. Greg Constantine is co-founder and CEO. He’s based in New York City. And, Stafford Sheehan is co-founder and chief technology officer. He’s working out of the XPRIZE testing facility in Calgary. Thank you both for joining the podcast.

Greg: Of course, thanks for having us.

Stafford: Thank you for having us.

Tracy: Yeah, I was pretty intrigued when I heard about Air Company and the project that you guys are working on for XPRIZE. So, can you tell us briefly what you’re working on?

Greg: Yes, I mean, so we’re a company and we turn carbon dioxide into alcohols and Staff here is actually up in Canada at the moment, part of the XPRIZE and could probably talk to some of that intricacy as well.

Stafford: Yeah, we develop fixed-bed flow reactors. Since we’re kind of in industry here, I figure I can use a little bit of the terminology. And in those flow reactors, we put proprietary catalysts that we make ourselves and that turns carbon dioxide and renewable hydrogen into alcohols.

Tracy: All right, and one of the things that makes you guys a little bit different, and it’s something that people can relate to, I think, a little bit better than a lot of the technical terms, is you guys are actually making vodka out of CO2.

Greg: That’s right, that’s right. We are and we’re down here based in the U.S. as well, where we sell our products.

Tracy: Now, what other — so are you doing the vodka, but if you’re producing this high-quality ethanol, what other uses does it have?

Stafford: We can make things from vodka to sanitizer to fragrances to pharmaceutical grade ethanol for applications kind-of across the board. But ultimately, what we’re doing all of these small consumer applications for, is to help to enable us to prove out and scale the technology so we can really get to world scale with our CO2 to alcohols that could potentially displace more fossil based alcohols.

Tracy: Right, and so you mentioned sanitizer, and that’s something that you guys did a quick shift over to during COVID, is that right?

Greg: Yeah, yeah, we did. In March, we made a decision, Staff and I made a decision as a business, that we saw things getting progressively worse here in the U.S., specifically in New York, where our headquarters are located. And we decided to pivot the business for a short period of time to create sanitizer, not only because we can, but we really felt that in a time of need, it was where we could really help and a testament to the team and being able to do so as well.

Tracy: Right. Yeah, a definite need. So, can you guys tell me a little bit how you got together, how did you get together as a team and how to come up with the idea for Air Vodka?

Stafford: Yeah, so we, Greg and I actually met, we met because we were both put on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for prior accomplishments in our career. We met in Israel over whiskey. And I had been working on carbon dioxide conversion technologies for 10 years through undergrad and grad school before that. And Greg at the time was an executive in one of the biggest alcohol companies in the world. And we just became good friends. And over the course of several months, we thought we had a pretty good idea here that we could take the alcohol industry and try to make it more sustainable and more environmentally friendly and something that could actually help to fight climate change rather than exacerbate it.

Tracy: Right, and I just want to acknowledge that you guys have actually won a couple of other awards already for your innovation, including a prize from NASA.

Greg: We have yeah, we’ve been pretty lucky in a sense that the recognition that we’ve gotten for not only products but also technology has been really positive. So, yeah, we won some funding for NASA for alternate applications for the technology. And we’ve won several other awards, not only for the vodka specifically, but also company-wide.

Tracy: So, Greg, you’re in New York City. What has been the reception in the marketplace for Air Vodka?

Greg: Reception’s been like really, really positive. I mean, we’ve won several of the largest taste tests, blind taste test competitions for spirits in the world. And we won gold in several of them. So, the liquid really, really speaks for itself. And you know what Stafford’s been able to kind-of deliver on that quality side is second to none. So when you’ve got a product that tastes great, hopefully looks great, and that really stands for something bigger than just the product itself, it stands for an aid of trying to help actively prevent climate change. You know, the reception to that has been phenomenal.

Tracy: OK, so let’s move on a little bit. You mentioned the goal is to fight climate change. And the goal of the Carbon XPRIZE is to find those solutions, right, that can help in that battle against climate change. Tell me a little bit about what kind of impact you hope that you can have.

Stafford: So, from the Carbon XPRIZE we’re using this test centre, we’re using the lessons that we learn here to expand the feedstocks that we can use. So carbon dioxide typically comes from combustion, power plants like the natural gas power plant that we’re sitting at here. In New York, we use post fermentation. So that’s a very clean source of carbon dioxide, but it’s more limited in scope. So one of the things that we want to show in the carbon XPRIZE is that our technology can be applied to all of these different carbon dioxide sources beyond just kind of the ones that we’re using in New York City and all the way down to being able to air capture carbon dioxide and deploy our systems wherever we want. That really is what demonstrates scale and the ability to bring these technologies to a world scale where we can really have a massive impact toward fighting climate change.

Tracy: Right. So, outside of the XPRIZE competition itself, Air Company is about a lot more than vodka. And I was going through your website, and you’ve got some really big ambition there. And I’m hoping you’ll tell us a little bit about your latest project, which is, Air Stellar.

Greg: Yeah, absolutely, so for us — and Staff kind of touched on it — vodka is really a proof point of technology. Spirits as a whole are a proof point of technology. You know, our ultimate goal is to, would be to see this technology applied to every industry vertical that it touches on, because that’s where you can really create impact and hopefully change when it comes to potentially mitigating the effects of climate change as well. Now, Air Stellar for us really came about because of the work that we were doing for NASA that we spoke about before. And upon that pathway to working with them and trying to find some solutions for other applications in space Staff and the team essentially worked on ways to innovate and bring it to the forefront, technology that can be used for rocket fuel. So it’s something that is definitely a longer-term goal and a longer-term stretch, while in the short-term, we definitely have to make sure that we’re executing on technology now. But it’s definitely a big stretch goal that we’re trying to work towards as well.

Stafford: And one of the one of the coolest applications, I think, of carbon dioxide conversion technology is for habitats and human expansion to Mars. And the atmosphere of Mars is over 95 per cent carbon dioxide. So, there’s tons of feedstock there for this sort of technology. And that’s a really, it’s a really cool, relevant application that we think could really help with that actual human exploration and expansion down the line in the future.

Tracy: How do you put a timeline on that kind of a project, the sort of thing that you guys are working on, how do you break that down into smaller milestones that you can sort-of measure those achievements by?

Stafford: From a technological standpoint, we begin work in our studio or our lab determining whether or not these sorts of technologies are feasible on a, I would say, a large prototype scale and all of that sort of technology development, that typically happens in parallel to actual production of our products. So, we’re combining R&D with launching early stage products in that manner. So that’s more or less how we you know, how we start out this process of scale. And then we’re still obviously on the scale up because we don’t have any world scale plants sitting out there right now. But from there, we build gradually larger systems that that are more optimized for the specific application we build them for. So, for example, the system that I’m deploying here in Calgary for the XPRIZE is around 10 times the scale and output of the one that we have sitting in Brooklyn.

Tracy: OK, now, ultimately, what it comes down to is that this is the big thinking, like these are the innovative ideas that XPRIZE is all about, that spurring innovation and trying to find ways of improving the world around us, I guess. So, would you comment on that? I guess in a broader sense, how do you see us moving forward in a world that’s both abundant in energy supply and sustainable?

Stafford: So we can, in our specific technology, technological vertical, which is I think something that carbon dioxide conversion is something that has to be married with renewable energy and a lot of other infrastructure that we’re doing our best to help, help build together. You know, the ultimate impact that we see of this, is a massive, from at least our technology, we can we can see between two to seven per cent of greenhouse gas emissions reduction, but a massive change in both the cultural mindset as well as the technological mindset toward deploying technologies like these that help to heal our atmosphere, for lack of a better term.

Tracy: Greg, did you have anything you wanted to add on that?

Greg: I think Staff really kind-of hit the nail on the head. To be a part of the XPRIZE is really about thinking big and then having that vision and then executing on that vision as well. You know, one of the core milestones is how much CO2 you’re reducing and how much we have put through outputting. But what really gets them excited and what really gets us most excited is how we can take these ideas and then turn them into reality as well. And that’s just quintessential to what Staff’s been able to do from a technological perspective.

Tracy: And it’s been a challenging year both for individuals and for companies. How has the experience been for you managing through COVID and the current situation?

Greg: Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely been tough. It hasn’t been an easy year for anyone. And I think for — especially for — an early stage startup like ourselves, that you’ve already got those chips stacked up against you from the get-go, and then when you couple that with a global pandemic and then some of the other things that we’re seeing in the U.S., it makes it tricky and tough. However we have such an incredible group of individuals here that are working together to this one big common goal of helping eliminate climate change and showing people that you can do it through technologies like this, that’s really kind-of risen above everything that’s happened and allowed us to hopefully be successful this year and hopefully even more successful in the years to come when it comes to advancing technologies and innovating.

Tracy: Stafford, anything you want to add before we wrap up the interview for today?

Stafford: I think we hit all the nails on the head that we set out to we’re really excited to be a part of the XPRIZE here. And we’re really excited to to be taking the carbon dioxide from the Shepard Energy Centre and turning it into things better for the world and global warming.

Tracy: Good luck to you both and to the whole team at Air Company, not only as the Carbon XPRIZE wraps up, but with your other projects as well. Thanks so much for talking with me today.

Greg: Appreciate it.

Stafford: Thank you.

Tracy: That was a conversation with Greg Constantine and Stafford Sheehan, co-founders of Air Company, one of the finalists in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE.

And stay tuned. This was part one of a three-part series where we interview XPRIZE finalists to learn more about these innovators and their potentially groundbreaking carbon conversion technologies. Join us next week where my co-host Leighton Klassen interviews Greg Boser of Carbon Upcycling Technologies—a Calgary company with a big idea to combine CO2 with waste products to turn them into things like plastics, concrete replacement and solar panels. Thanks for listening. Feel free to share this podcast and please subscribe to get future episodes of Energy Examined.

Thanks for listening. Feel free to share the podcast and please subscribe for future episodes of Energy Examined.