UK company creates fuel out of thin air

    10:52 AM, Nov 28, 2012   |    comments
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    UNDATED (CNN) -- One company has found a way to make gasoline from air and water. It's a development that could revolutionize the way we get our fuel.

    These days filling up the car has become painfully expensive. And that's because often the oil or petroleum has come from the other side of the world. But now a group of scientists in northern Britain claim they have perfected the theory of turning carbon dioxide into petroleum using nothing more than the fresh air around them and electricity.

    The breakthrough was made at a modest industrial lot near Darlington. Inside a couple of shipping containers, a group of scientists have built a mini refinery that doesn't need oil.

    Peter Harrison is CEO of Air Fuel Synthesis. He says, "We believe we have got a technology that could make a significant impact and a contribution towards greening up the world, but we are not saying it is the only answer."

    Colleague Bob Jennings explains the science which despite all these equations, is actually quite simple. Air is combined with sodium hydroxide and passed through an electrolyzer to separate the CO2. Water is similarly separated into hydrogen and oxygen. Then the CO2 and hydrogen are reacted together to make methanol, and eventually petrol.

    At the moment this is all small scale and highly inefficient producing just five liters a day using a lot of electricity but the team insists there is potential.

    Dr. Lee Cronin is sympathetic, but skeptical. An academic also trying to find fuel solutions, he says the problem with air to fuel is it requires seriously large amounts of electricity scaling it up to power the USA would be almost impossible at the moment. He says, "There's about 1.4 billion liters of gasoline used in the US every day and if they were to replace that if this company were to scale up it would require half the world's energy consumption per day. To do that so that's an enormous cost at the current efficiency. So obviously that's not going to work, but they have shown proof of principle, it is possible to take energy, electricity, take CO2 from the atmosphere, take water and combine it to make gasoline again. So what we really need to think about is how to take really cheap in essence free energy solar wind to make carbon neutral fuels liquid fuels that we can travel around in, that can be used in agriculture and for flying airplanes."

    Jennings collects the latest batch; it looks like beer, but once the foam goes you can see the fuel rising to the top. He says, "Yeah, in principle we can make that from the air. By taking the co2 out of the air make hydrogen from water make hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methanol, being the methanol over here and convert the methanol into petrol."

    So what about people who say "What's the point, because it costs more in electricity than just going out and buying some petrol?" Jennings says, "Well there is a lot of renewable energy about at the moment that is wasted - you can't put all the renewable energy into the grid. So what you want to be able to do, is to capture all that spare renewable electricity and make something useful of it. Petrol is something that is easy to store and is very useful, it can go straight into your car. "


    Presumably there are parts of the world where they have plenty of electricity, solar power, and no petrol. Jennings says, "Yes We've had inquiries from Patagonia where they have plenty of wind, Clearly where there is plenty of sunshine you can use it for that. And we've had inquiries that are landlocked but have hydro electricity. They can make their own fuel now, rather than having to worry about imports which are very expensive."

    It may seem baffling that this can come from nothing, but in fact it's not a trick. He says, "You can't create energy, as everybody knows, we are not creating energy, we are just converting it from one form to another."

    To start with, AFS is targeting the application of this technology to Formula 1. Harrison says, "We have a lot of interest from the motor-racing sector, at the moment they have a problem getting their green credentials right, we have a drop in replacement hydrocarbon fuel which is carbon neutral."

    But if this takes off, it could help fight climate change if electricity was used from renewable sources like wind farms. The petrol produced wouldn't add an "extra" CO2 to the atmosphere. Harrison says, "As we build up to refinery scale I think we can make a significant difference to the amount of CO2 that is being released unnecessarily into the atmosphere."

    Meaning one day, motoring might not be as bad for the planet. It wouldn't release any extra CO2 into the atmosphere, just the CO2 that had already been sucked out of the air by making the fuel; a process that has used electricity from wind or solar power. Harrison says, "We've got a demonstration here, we've got a scooter here to demonstrate what we have is actually a fuel."

    Like everything here, the demonstration is small scale, a tiny engine fuelled by a splash of green petroleum, but it could be the beginning of a revolution.

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