A technology that could help humans live on Mars is being used to address an immediate need here on Earth and produce hand sanitizer for a community impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19). Air Co., a company based in Brooklyn, New York, and competing in NASA’s CO2 Conversion Challenge, is making hand sanitizer with a technology that coverts carbon dioxide into ethanol. The company donates the supplies to local hospitals, doctors’ offices, and police stations.
They’re using the same unique technology to convert carbon dioxide into simple sugar molecules known as D-sugars for the NASA competition. 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.
“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). “This is one example of how NASA challenges spur innovation to help life on Earth and beyond. We catalyze a culture of change makers and problems solvers, many of whom go on to apply their technology and creativity to make a difference in their own communities and around the world.”
Air Co.’s founders Gregory Constantine, left, and Stafford Sheehan. Credits: Air Co.
In addition to helping solve space exploration challenges, NASA prize competitions benefit participants too, enabling them to network, scale up ideas, increase resources, and even launch companies.
Air Co. 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 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.
Stafford Sheehan, co-founder and chief technologist inside their Brooklyn, New York based studio where they are working on their demonstration system for Phase 2 of the NASA CO2 Conversion Challenge. Credits: Air Co.
“A key feature of Air Co.’s process that made them successful in Phase 1 of the competition is that the initial production of alcohols from CO2 creates a valuable feedstock for making more complex compounds like sugars,” said John Hogan, a life support systems scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “This also allows the alcohols to be used as-is for immediately practical uses such as hand sanitizer.”
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 used in the hand sanitizer. For the NASA challenge, the alcohol will then be used to create glucose.
Air Co. leveraged partners to create packaging and labeling for the hand sanitizer 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 it’s needed.
The CO2 Conversion Challenge is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, which offers incentive prizes to the public, academia and industry working to develop revolutionary solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. Centennial Challenges, managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is part of the Prizes and Challenges program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
For information about the CO2 Conversion Challenge, visit:
For information about Centennial Challenges, visit:
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
Last Updated: April 9, 2020
Editor: Jennifer Harbaugh