WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit is seeking to use carbon dioxide, the most readily available greenhouse gas, to fuel military aircraft operating in contested environments.

DIU awarded Air Co., a carbon technology company based in New York City, a contract worth as much as $65 million to convert carbon dioxide into synthetic aviation fuel. The award is part of a DIU effort called Synthetic Fuels for the Contested Environment, or Project SynCE, which aims to create small, mobile fuel production systems that could be quickly deployed during wartime.

“We have an incredible opportunity to reduce our burden on global energy supply chains and simultaneously reduce emissions without sacrificing mission effectiveness,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Nicole Pearl, operational lead for Project SynCE, said in a Feb. 28 statement. “By developing and deploying on-side fuel production technology, our joint force will be more resilient and sustainable.”

The Defense Department is the U.S. government’s largest consumer of fuel, spending more than $11 billion on the resource in fiscal 2022, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. Military aircraft are the heaviest users of that supply.

Because of that reliance, DoD officials are concerned the department’s fuel supply network could be vulnerable to attack and to the impacts of climate change. According to DIU, investing in synthetic fuel technology could “deter adversary targeting while also providing decarbonization pathways for the future joint forces.”

From vodka to jet fuel

Perhaps best known for its flagship product, AIR Vodka — a spirit made from carbon dioxide — Air Company is also focused on alternative fuel production. The company’s process is similar to photosynthesis, converting carbon dioxide derived from sustainable sources into a carbon-negative sustainable jet fuel that it calls AIRMADE.

The company’s processes for creating alcohol and fuel are similar, it said in a statement.

“In addition to its sustainability benefits, our technology enables control of fuel supply and availability for our partners,” Air Company Chief Technology Officer Stafford Sheehan said. “Working with DIU and their stakeholders allows us to continue advancing our technology’s modularity, reliability and efficiency for on-site production.”

The goal is for the military to be able to produce the synthetic fuel at fixed bases or at remote forward operating locations. Unlike many other alternative fuel sources, it doesn’t need to be blended with fossil fuels to operate in aircraft.

“This will give the services the ability to reduce or eliminate their dependence on a ‘commercial-first’ strategy, which creates reliance upon local commercial markets for fuel,” DIU said.

DIU’s partners for the project include the Air Force, the Operational Energy Capability Improvement Fund, the Department of Energy and the Army’s chief engineers office.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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