Light and Breezy: Vodka Made Using Carbon Captured From the Air

by TK Sanders
(Photo by Soeren Stache/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Add vodka to the growing list of products made with recycled carbon dioxide via carbon capture and utilization. More and more companies are attempting to use the carbon waste emitted from one primary product to essentially formulate a secondary product; in effect netting out carbon emission to zero in the process. At the very least, these companies want to recycle their carbon dioxide emissions a few times before ultimately releasing it into the planet, the Financial Post reports.

By utilizing expensive solvents that attract the molecules like iron filings to a magnet, companies can separate carbon dioxide from other gasses. Once captured, the carbon dioxide can sit in a specialty well for centuries if needed, waiting for another usage. Some logistical challenges remain for the technology, like transport and storage, but the new tech shows tremendous promise. Vodka, hand sanitizer, perfume, and even beer industries have all begun adopting the carbon capture process in small ways.

Carbon 180, a non-governmental think tank organization, estimates that a $1 trillion market exists in the U.S. alone for products made from captured emissions. Plastics, building materials, and even food or drinks could conceivably utilize the tech in unique and exciting ways.

Creating consumer products like vodka from carbon emissions sounds innovative, but is it cost-effective?

Of course, the energy market stands to gain the most from the process; especially as the world wrestles with a future dependent on fossil fuels. One company, Dimensional Energy, wants to make useable fuel from waste carbon and sunlight. Their process works by adding water to captured carbon and heating the mixture to high temperatures using electricity generated from solar panels. The carbon and hydrogen bind using a catalyst; with the resulting compound used as fuel for cargo ships and planes.

“What our process does is it takes what has formally been treated as waste and makes it usable,” Chief Executive Officer Jason Salfi said in an interview. He said they plan to capture and use 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide by the end of the decade. It’s an enormous goal, given the current tech only allows about 4,000 recaptured tons per year at the moment.

Moving forward, the industry will have to grapple with a choice. Is it more cost-effective and useful to simply recapture the carbon and store it away? Or recapture and attempt to reuse it in some capacity?

According to Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative, trapping captured carbon dioxide underground, rather than attempting to make a product like vodka, is much more efficient from a climate perspective. Reuse requires more energy, which limits the ability of these processes to have a meaningful climate impact, he said. There are other ways to cut emissions from most of these products, he also added.

“Carbon utilization has advantages as a climate solution,” said Giana Amador, policy director at Carbon180; but it doesn’t permanently eliminate carbon from the atmosphere, she added. “Neither carbon capture nor carbon removal is a license for fossil fuel companies to continue emitting.”