Oxford University spinout Oxccu have completed a $22.7 million Series A round to bring their sustainable aviation fuel to market. The round was led by Clean Energy Ventures with participation from Kiko Ventures, Eni Next, United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight Fund and Braavos Capital. Oxccu has developed an innovative process to convert carbon dioxide and hydrogen for industrial uses, including aviation fuel, and will use the funding to bring their product to market.
The move comes as demand for flights may have bounced back after pandemic restrictions, but the environmental cost of flying has never been better known. Oxccu’s single-step process offers a possible solution, and co-founder and CEO Andrew Symes spoke to TFN about their process and how the investment will be used.
Create real-world benefits from academic research
Oxford University has an enviable track record in startups, with names like Oxford Nanopore breaking records as they transitioned from academic research to commercial success. And Oxccu has been following the same path. “The story is about the Oxford chemistry department,” says Symes, referring to his co-founder, Dr Tiancun Xiao. “Over twelve years, Tiancun and his team focused on the idea that in a single step, you can transform carbon dioxide into fuel. The breakthrough came in 2020, when their Nature paper demonstrated that it was possible and got worldwide attention.” Following the interest in that paper, Symes and Xiao joined with the third co-founder, Dr Jane Jin, to start Oxccu.
In some ways, the technology is not that new. Traditional fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, and science has long understood their structures. However, it has never been able to cost-effectively manufacture fuels synthetically, leaving us reliant on crude oil that releases previously buried carbon back into the atmosphere. This side effect that is avoided by making synthetic fuel from the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere.
“Everyone is desperate to keep flying — we all love flying, we just want to fly without the climate impact and guilt,” Symes told us. “Ultimately, the challenge of making fuel from CO₂ has been the cost. It’s a relatively complex process. By simplifying it, we have a significant reduction in that cost.” The reduction means that using synthetic fuels like Oxccu’s becomes a viable prospect for aviation.
Previously, synthetic fuel was created using two capital intensive steps which not only increased the cost of production, but also reduced the environmental benefit. Oxccu’s process not only reduces this to a single, cost-effective, step, it also uses captured carbon dioxide and renewably sourced green hydrogen, helping to minimise the net environmental impact of the fuel when used.
Clean Energy Ventures’ co-founder and managing partner, Dan Goldman, highlighted Oxccu’s potential to transform the sector. “This breakthrough is exactly what we need to turn the emerging sustainable aviation fuel market into reality and cost-effectively cut carbon emissions from fuel production at scale,” he said. “We see extraordinary potential for this technology to mitigate new aviation fuel production emissions at gigaton-scale in the near-future.” The potential is so big that Oxccu is Clean Energy Ventures’ first investment outside the US.
Showing the world an alternative to fossil fuels
Although Oxccu is growing its team, mainly by increasing its research and development capacity, much of the funding will be used to develop and prove its commercial potential. “We’re building our first demo plant at Oxford Airport,” Symes said. “That will be the world’s first one-step synthetic fuel demonstration plant.”
After their demonstration plant, Symes says Oxccu will be looking at larger plants and licensing their technology as they scale. He also notes that although they are focused on the aviation fuel sector currently, there are plenty of other markets where petrochemicals could be replaced by more sustainable products. “We’re a technology company,” he explained, “so we don’t just have to do aviation fuels. We can look at those different markets, which all involve the conversion of CO₂ to different fuels, chemicals, and plastics using hydrogen.”
However, Oxccu’s current focus on aviation fuel does not represent a lack of ambition. Symes notes that their main competitor is the whole fossil fuel industry. “We differentiate because we’re selling the same aviation fuel, but without the climate impact,” he says. “It’s an enormous market, but we’re talking about displacng all fossil fuel, eventually: our aim is to remove the fossil part. We don’t have to get to 100% today, but we can start with a smaller amount and, over time, reduce the climate impacts of aviation.”