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Consumer Products

Chemist launches carbon-negative vodka company

Air Co., started by C&EN Talented 12 alum Staff Sheehan, makes the cocktail staple from captured CO₂

by Melody M. Bomgardner
November 7, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 44

 

09744-buscon5-vodka.jpg
Credit: Air Co.
Air Co.'s carbon-negative vodka.

There’s a new way to combat climate change, but only New Yorkers over 21 can partake. Brooklyn-based Air Co., a company started by C&EN Talented 12 alum Staff Sheehan, has launched vodka made from captured CO2.

Vodka is traditionally made by fermenting grains or other plant sources of carbohydrates or sugars—a process that emits CO2. In contrast, Air Co. consumes CO2 that a supplier captures from other companies’ fermentation processes.

To produce ethanol for its vodka, Sheehan’s team first makes hydrogen by splitting water. The hydrogen and two CO2 molecules are then combined using a proprietary catalyst.

Sheehan has been working with CO2 catalysts since his grad student days at Yale University, so it’s no surprise a secret catalyst is at the heart of the new company. Still, the booze business is a change of pace for the chemist. He earlier founded Catalytic Innovations to make chemicals from CO2, water, and solar energy in an electrochemical cell.

“Our little prototype could make a bottle’s worth of ethanol in like three weeks,” Sheehan tells C&EN. And purifying the ethanol required a lot of energy. In 2018, Sheehan and Air Co. co-founder Gregory Constantine decided instead to explore hydrogenation to make vodka.

The Air Co. system produces a 10-20% ethanol/water solution, which the firm distills at its Brooklyn site to higher ethanol concentration. Its 40% alcohol vodka won gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year.

To ensure the cocktail mainstay reaches customers in a carbon-negative state, it will be distributed only in New York City.

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