Cornell University: United Airlines, Dimensional Energy reach green fuel pact

United Airlines will fly greener through its friendly blue skies one day, as the airline group agreed June 15 to purchase at least 300 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cornell startup Dimensional Energy, a company that turns captured carbon dioxide into liquid fuel with renewable energy.

United and United Airlines Ventures also announced that they will invest into the research and development of Dimensional Energy, as a step toward reaching the airline’s own net-zero commitment by 2050 – without needing carbon credit offsets.

Since 2018, Dimensional Energy – based in Ithaca, New York – has been enrolled in Cornell’s Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences, a business incubator.

“United Airlines is a huge partner for us,” said Jason Salfi, Dimensional Energy CEO and co-founder. “It’s an amazing partnership and they’re a tremendously friendly group of people. In a way, it feels like United is a small company – there are no barriers to getting things done. We work together gracefully.”

For the last half-dozen years, Dimensional Energy has developed a way to gather carbon dioxide from a sources like industrial sites (cement plants) or from direct-air capture, then add renewable energy and hydrogen to their novel system of reactors, to transform it into an environmentally friendly fuel. Salfi estimates that a fuel will be ready for a testing phase in about one year.

Dimensional Energy started in serendipitous way.

Tobias Hanrath, the Marjorie L. Hart ’50 Professor in Engineering, in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and David Erickson, the S.C. Thomas Sze Director of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, had both applied independently for grants from NEXUS-NY – a clean energy business accelerator funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

NEXUS-NY recognized that the two Cornell professors’ ideas were closely related and introduced them. The professors, along with Salfi and entrepreneur Clayton Poppe, both working for NEXUS-NY as mentors, formed the startup company Dimensional Energy in 2016. All of them worked with NEXUS-NY to develop the current concept.

Soon, Hanrath and Erickson won an Academic Venture Fund grant from the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability to help combat climate change by capturing carbon dioxide to yield a valuable, green liquid fuel for commercialization. In 2018 they joined the McGovern Center, which provided facilities, mentors and access to Cornell expertise.

“The structure of Cornell’s research ecosystem was an immense help,” Salfi said. “We had – and continue to have – access to the equipment that we need to develop our technology. We were able to emerge from the lab to the field with the support of all the Cornell community had to offer.

“As a startup you have to be capital efficient,” he said. “You have to have that kind of support we were offered here.”

Last year, Dimensional Energy became a finalist in the first $20 million Carbon X-Prize. The company has received grants from the National Science Foundation, as well as from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-e and Solar Energy Technology Office.

The company began construction on a carbon dioxide-to-fuels demonstration plant in Tucson, Arizona, last year, due to the natural sunlight available there. It is expected to begin operation in July.

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