United Airlines Wants Sustainable Fuel Made From Thin Air

On Wednesday, United Airlines and its corporate venture firm United Airlines Ventures (UAV), which oversees all the carrier’s bets on new startups, announced an investment in and commercial agreement with Dimensional Energy. Under the agreement, United has committed to purchasing at least 300 million gallons of Power-to-Liquid SAF over 20 years.

Price-matching kerosene in ten years?

CO2 recycling company Dimensional Energy was founded in Ithaca, New York, in 2016. The company has developed new technology to convert carbon dioxide and water into usable ingredients for the Fischer-Tropsch process, which has been used for nearly 100 years to produce fossil- fuel-based.

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It will now be used to create sustainable aviation fuel from what is essentially thin air – or at least the carbon dioxide captured from it. The company claims its product will meet – and beat – the price of fossil-based fuels over the coming decade.

United Airlines is one of the few carriers that have committed to reaching net-zero by 2050 without the use of conventional carbon offsetting mechanisms. The airline’s SAF uptake agreements currently represent the largest over the course of the coming two decades in the industry. Michael Leskinen, President of United Airlines Ventures, commented on the new agreement,


“Sometimes you have to look to the past to solve new problems, and we recognize that decarbonizing air travel is going to require combining proven technologies, such as Fischer-Tropsch, with the latest advances in science and engineering. As we grow our portfolio of companies like Dimensional, we are creating opportunities to scale these early-stage technologies and achieve United’s commitment carbon neutrality by 2050.”

United has promised it will get to net-zero without falling back on carbon offsets. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

CO2 plus renewable energy equals SAF

Dimensional Energy began construction on a carbon dioxide-to-fuels demo in Tucson, Arizona, in 2021. The facility is set to start operations, creating jet fuel from recycled carbon emissions, this July. The plant will use electricity from the Arizona grid, which gets an increasing amount of power from local solar panels. Meanwhile, the company intends for future facilities to use hydro power, wind power, and the maturing technology of concentrated solar power, which utilizes heat from direct sunlight.

Dimensional Energy has also received funding from the National Science Foundation and both the Department of Energy’s ARPA-e and Solar Energy Technology Office (SETO). The company’s co-founder and CEO, Jason Salfi, commented,

“Dimensional Energy is acutely focused on energy solutions that center communities who have been marginalized in the past century as infrastructure and energy systems were developed. We envision a world run on truly conflict-free energy that can scale to meet the global demand for hydrocarbon fuels and feedstocks. United’s support of sustainable aviation fuel made from captured emissions is an important step in the aviation industry’s pursuit of carbon neutrality.”

United’s flights out of Amsterdam will now be powered partially by Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel produced from renewable waste and residue raw materials. Photo: Getty Images

United Airlines and SAFA

United Airlines has cast its SAF net wide. Last month, it became the first US carrier to sign a sustainable fuel uptake agreement overseas as it agreed to purchase over 50 million gallons from Neste to be supplied at Amsterdam Schiphol and other airports. The carrier has also invested in a synthetic biology company called Cemvita, which is looking to engineer sustainable fuels from microbes.

Furthermore, it has invested in Fulcrum Energy, with options to purchase up to 900 million gallons of SAF. In 2016, United became the first airline globally to use SAF in regular operations on a continuous basis using fuel provided by World Energy.

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