Moses Lake, Washington is a small, pleasant city in the USA’s northwest, along a sinuous, managed body of water that from above resembles a dragon chasing an eagle. Carved out by glacial floodwaters that swept across the Columbia Plateau during the Pleistocene era, it’s a place that intimately knows change – climate, social and economic. What once was a barren landscape of arid steppe and canyon, beloved only by its inland Salish tribe, the Sinkiuse, its waterways were damned, irrigation was developed and an airbase was created in the mid 20th century – acts that turned it into the transportation tech and recreation hub it is today.
Named for tribal Chief Moses who attended Mission school, learnt “the ways of the whites” but never converted to Christianity, spoke five languages and, eventually, negotiated the Sinkiuse surrender of the land in an attempt to save himself and them, Moses Lake’s biblical association with the miraculous parting of water and saviourhood is perhaps a lucky coincidence for one of the tech startups making a home there.
On the site of a former Moses Lake sugar beet mill, Twelve, co-founded by three Stanford University brains, has just broken ground on a facility that by 2024 aims to be up and performing the apparent miracle of turning CO2 into aviation fuel.
By splitting water molecules and carbon dioxide molecules, mixing the resulting carbon monoxide and hydrogen into “syngas”, then processing them using the Fischer-Tropsch method, they will create a liquid that is chemically identical to jet fuel extracted from fossils. The process was successfully tested in 2021 in partnership with the US Airforce.
2. Holy Grail?
Aviation was to blame for 2% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions in 2022, a worse sinner than roads, rail, or shipping, according to the International Energy Agency. The pressure to decarbonise flying is intense but has not yet resulted in a solution that comes anywhere near the quantities of sustainable fuel needed. The major US airlines alone consumed 17.5 billion gallons of jet fuel in 2022. For comparison, Twelve is expecting to produce only an estimated 40,000 gallons of fuel per year at first.
But with million-dollar deals already on the table with Alaska Airlines, Microsoft and Shopify, the startup is looking to ramp up to ten times that within the first year of operation, Ram Ramprasad, the company’s chief commercial officer, has told Canary Media. “This is just our first step,” he said. “Part of our scale-up plan is to repeat this very quickly and build much bigger facilities… up and down the middle of the country.”
So has Twelve now hit upon the Holy Grail? A potentially scalable SAF or E-Jet product that is not reliant on scarce feedstocks like animal fats and cooking oil, and even recycles the very CO2 emissions that are contributing to global warming? It seems too good to be true.
3. Too good to be true?
Questions have to be asked about where Twelve will get its raw materials – and how sustainable its supply and delivery chain will be.
Electricity for the Moses Lake facility will be taken from Washington’s grid, which is over two-thirds hydropowered, the rest driven by fossil gas, renewables, nuclear – and coal. Transportation of SAF batches to airports will be done at first by road, only switching to rail when production is at a higher output.
For CO2, initially the company will be supplied from an Oregon ethanol refinery, later switching to pulp and paper facilities in home state Washington, Ramprasad has said.
Ironically, as our devices, homes and vehicles become increasingly driven by battery and the world’s industries and energy suppliers seek to reduce CO2 emissions, Twelve will have to deal with increasing competition for its raw ingredients: hydrogen and the (renewable) electricity needed to create it; and CO2,.
“Direct air capture” CO2, sucked mechanically out of the sky is at present energy-guzzling, costly and untested at scale, so Twelve will indeed need to look to up, down and middle of the country to the U.S. Corn Belt, where wind farms and CO2-producing ethanol plants are plentiful…at least for now.
In the meantime, its disciples are plentiful too. The company has raised over $200 million venture capital in eight years.