When Air Co. entered NASA’s CO2 Conversion Challenge last year, the company did not envisage that a time would come when it would be producing hand sanitiser.
The CO2 Conversion Challenge, launched by NASA to develop technologies that use carbon dioxide -CO2- as the sole source of carbon to make molecules that could be used to produce, among other things, substrates for use in microbial bioreactors. Such technologies would not only transform waste and atmospheric CO2 from a problem into a resource, but could open the door for establishing a successful colony on, for example, Mars. CO2 is readily abundant within the Martian atmosphere. If this CO2 could be harnessed for the in-situ manufacturing of products, humans could well be able to thrive there.
Air Co., based in Brooklyn, New York, was one of five winners in the first phase of the CO2 Conversion Challenge, in which the teams developed a concept to turn carbon dioxide into glucose using a non-biological process.
The Air Co. team devised a way to convert carbon dioxide into simple sugar molecules known as D-sugars for the NASA competition.
According to John Hogan, a life support systems scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, a key feature of Air Co.’s process that made them successful in Phase 1 of the competition was that the initial production of alcohols from CO2 created a valuable feedstock for making more complex compounds like sugars.
The ability to make D-sugars such as glucose in space could be used to create mission-critical products such as plastic, food and medicine.
The team won $50,000 and is currently participating in Phase 2, the demonstration phase where they will build and demonstrate a system to help enable long-duration space exploration.
Now, however, in the face of the shortage of the hand sanitiser so urgently needed by healthcare and other public workers, Air Co. is putting its novel technology to practical use, and is producing ethanol from CO2 for making sanitising hand gel.
The company donates the supplies to local hospitals, doctors’ offices, and police stations.
“It is great to hear about a team participating in a NASA challenge using their technology to help their local area during this crisis,” said Walt Engelund, deputy associate administrator for programs within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).
The company’s system combines CO2 with water, which first divides the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, then combines the hydrogen with CO2 to produce the carbon-negative alcohol.
These alcohols can be used as-is ‘for immediately practical uses such as hand sanitiser’, said John Hogan. For the NASA challenge, the alcohol will then be used to create glucose.
Air Co. leveraged partners to create packaging and labelling for the hand sanitiser and is now working around the clock to produce approximately 2,000 two-ounce bottles per week. The company plans to continue production as long as this is needed.