This Martini Wants to Kill Climate Change One Sip at a Time

In 2017, Stafford Sheehan was a chemist working on artificial photosynthesis, coming up with metal-based catalysts that’d mimic the way living things acquire energy from the Sun. He did not expect to create a martini that could save the planet.Sheehan had an invention, a box that could electrolyze a burst of carbon dioxide and a dose of water. Run all that over a metal catalyst to goose a biochemical reaction, and, presto: renewable fuel made from air. One of the fuels he was making was ethanol, C2H6O, a molecule you might also recognize as the thing that makes you drunk. “I had taken to purifying the ethanol that I pulled out of our little electrolyzer, and I made a few beverages out of it,” Sheehan says. “It was always kind of a joke. Me and the other scientists in the lab would be like, ‘Let’s distill some of this and drink it at the party tonight.’ It was like a gag.”
Then Sheehan met Greg Constantine, a music promoter working for Smirnoff—the vodka label, part of the transnational booze company Diageo. And Constantine didn’t think that joke was funny. No, no, no. What Constantine and Sheehan realized was that with some tweaks, they could take that ethanol output and turn it into something people would pay good money to drink: a high-end vodka that goes on sale today, called Air. A vodka whose manufacturing process also slurped planet-killing greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere.

A lot of companies claim the stuff they sell also helps the environment. Sometimes it’s true; sometimes it’s greenwashing. Capitalists gonna capitalism. But if Air has done the molecular math right, this booze actually kills climate change—a little.

Air cofounder Stafford Sheehan introduces hydrogen gas and carbon dioxide gas into the company's reactor.

Courtesy of Air Co.
Traditional alcoholic beverages are a miracle of evolutionary biology. Yeast, a fungus, eats certain sugars and excretes ethanol and carbon dioxide on the other end, plus a bunch of other aromatic molecules with their own flavor contributions. The sugar source determines the type of booze. Start with grapes, you get wine. Grains, you get beer. Rice, you get sake. And so on.

If you want to put some topspin on that, you throw in a 2,000-year-old technology called distilling, which pumps energy into that fermented stuff in the form of heat and separates the more volatile molecules (like ethanol) from the heavier ones. Distill wine, you get brandy. Distill beer, you get whisky. Sake, you get shochu. And so on again.