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Rocket Fuel from Captured Carbon for Zero Emissions

The fuel needed to launch a rocket into space creates an enormous amount of harmful emissions. But there may now be a solution for avoiding that.

Every SpaceX launch, for example, is estimated to emit 715 tons of carbon dioxide and, as spaceflights become more common, wouldn't it be great if someone could come up with a more sustainable source of fuel?

A New York City-based startup might have stumbled upon the solution. Called the Air Company, the enterprise was launched a couple of years ago to produce carbon-negative vodka using captured carbon. So far so very NYC! But while producing the vodka, they accidentally found out that their process could also produce rocket fuel efficiently.

“We were running our systems at higher temperatures than normal, under some conditions that we don’t typically do, and found out that we could very efficiently make these fuel molecules,’ said Stafford Sheehan, an electrochemist and co-founder of Air Company.

What the startup figured out is that they can produce liquid methane - the fuel used by SpaceX rockets - using captured CO2 rather than natural gas. By doing so, the net carbon footprint of each flight can be eliminated.

The fuel also solves a second challenge: if reusable rockets make it to the Moon or Mars, they’ll need to refuel for the flight home, and the fuel could be made using materials found on the planet. Namely, water. “It’s frozen, but you can unfreeze it if you have enough energy to do that, and you do have energy in the form of solar energy. And you have an abundance of carbon dioxide because the atmosphere is 95% CO2,” Sheehan says.

The technology could also be used to make carbon-neutral fuel for some other applications, such as ships, though the company is focused on rocket fuel and is now working closely with the space industry to scale up their technologies and build a refueling station.

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