Company Says It Can Make Fuel out of Thin Air

Air Fuel Synthesis, a small British company, has found a way to combine basic elements from air and water into usable fuel.

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Check your calendar: it’s not April 1. A small British company has claimed it can create gasoline out of thin air, and it seems to be for real. According the Independent, the company has produced the first batch of “petrol from air” by employing innovative technology that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Since August, England-based Air Fuel Synthesis has created five liters—or about 1.32 gallons—of gasoline by combining carbon dioxide extracted from air with hydrogen from water to form a basic hydrocarbon — the essential ingredient of gasoline, the Independent reported. The company’s chief executive, Peter Harrison, shared the development at a Friday conference at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London.

“It sounds too good to be true, but it is true,” Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, told the Independent. “They are doing it and I’ve been up there myself and seen it. The innovation is that they have made it happen as a process.”

Fox said to the newspaper that Air Fuel Synthesis has a small pilot plant that “uses well-known and well-established components” to extract carbon dioxide from air, but it is the first one to “put the whole thing together” to make it work.

The Daily Mail reported that the company mixes air with sodium hydroxide, then electrolyzes the resulting sodium carbonate. This releases carbon dioxide, which is then combined with electrolyzed hydrogen from water to create a hydrocarbon solution that can be used as fuel.

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The process is, of course, still in its early stages and it relies on electricity from the national grid, The Independent noted. Air Fuel Synthesis intends to move to a larger, commercial plant in the coming years, according to the newspaper, and it would like to create eco-friendly aviation fuel. The company said it may be able to forgo electricity in the future and instead rely on renewable power sources, such as wind farms.

Peter Harrison told the Independent he does not know of any other companies that are creating energy in the same way.

“It looks and smells like petrol but it’s a much cleaner and clearer product than petrol derived from fossil oil,” Harrison said to the newspaper. “We don’t have any of the additives and nasty bits found in conventional petrol, and yet our fuel can be used in existing engines.”

He emphasized that the product would require no infrastructural changes to vehicles.

The Independent describes such an innovation as “the holy grail of the emerging green economy,” as it does not emit the polluting greenhouse gases of traditional oil and coal. Harrison said it could revolutionize contemporary environmental and economic landscapes.

“We are converting renewable electricity into a more versatile, useable and storable form of energy, namely liquid transport fuels,” Harrison told the Independent. “We think that by the end of 2014, provided we can get the funding going, we can be producing petrol using renewable energy and doing it on a commercial basis.”

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Harrison said his company’s new petroleum product could soon prove helpful to remote or island communities that have renewable electricity sources—such as solar and wind energy—but do not have a way to store it. Right now, however, the prototype system remains too inefficient to operate on a large scale, the Independent noted. According to the Daily Mail, price is also an issue, as the extraction of one ton of carbon monoxide can currently cost as much as $650.

Still, technology expenses are expected to decrease significantly, and the Daily Mail said experts have praised the Air Fuel Synthesis breakthrough as a possible “game changer.”

MORE: The Clean Energy Transition

13 comments
LincolnFong
LincolnFong

use this technology to capitalize on Smog Invested Environments ??

martianzrus
martianzrus

the carbon part of the process is completely unnecessary. just extract the hydrogen from water using, for example, the new catalysts from MIT. then you get over unity.


quaerendo
quaerendo

@TahmohPenikett worthwhile to note this process obviously consumes more energy than it produces

gratie127
gratie127

@TahmohPenikett That's very interesting and I hope they get tje funding to fully develop it. Thanks for sharing. :-)

SkyborgSinToren
SkyborgSinToren

@TahmohPenikett yeah... they would better try to harvest and light up everybody farts, way better energy gain than that "air fuel"

ClanSewe
ClanSewe

@mmnjug out is still in the infancy stage. And expensive to produce. Mornings @alykhansatchu @TotalKenya @Calestous

davidkile
davidkile

@erikrc Exxon will probably scoop them up and kill the project within weeks.

ian_vee
ian_vee

@gregleff oh, great. NOW what are we gonna breathe?

AnnoyedEngineer
AnnoyedEngineer

This article is very misleading because the author has no understandingof basic science. Carbon dioxide and water are two of the lowest energychemicals on the planet. Converting them into an energetic fuel requiresthe addition of electricity, so in fact the fuel is coming fromelectricity, not from thin air. If the electricity came from a renewablesource, instead of from fossil fuels, then you might this might havethe benefit of converting renewable electricity into a liquidhydrocarbon fuel. Ways to do this already exist, but this new processmight be more efficient. That's the true goal of the technology,efficiently producing liquid fuel from renewable electricity, not fuelfrom air.

AlBme
AlBme

Questions that need to be answered:

1) What is the true net energy gain/loss when producing this "petroleum product"? (It wouldn't be useful at all if it takes more energy to make than it produces.) If positive, how does that compare to using electricity directly in EVs?

2) As with EV technology, the full impact on the environment is often overlooked; for example, toxic by-products during production of various components; or, its disposal. When factoring in the entire process, from production to consumption to disposal, what is the true net environmental impact versus traditional petroleum? Don't you also have to factor in energy and monetary costs of producing the ingredients that make this technology possible -- such as sodium hydroxide?

3) If only 1.32 gallons have been produced since August, (roughly 1/2 a gallon per month), how much does the technology need to be scaled up before becoming a viable, marketable alternative? 

alykhansatchu
alykhansatchu

Morning @ClanSewe @mmnjug @totalkenya @Calestous

erikrc
erikrc

@davidkile funny I was thinking the same thing!

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

@AnnoyedEngineer You are right that the author passed over the most important point: how much energy is it taking to extract CO2 from air. He also passed over the issue of how to build up from that very simple hydrocarbon into a mix of hydrocarbons as suitable as gasoline, which is mostly but not entirely octane.

But even if this turns out to be rather energy intensive (I'll bet it is very intensive right now, and always will be with only modest improvement), it could still prove an effective way to lower our carbon footprint if we use renewable or nuclear energy to fuel the process instead of taking yet more carbon out from underground, putting it into the air. After all, gasoline or a similar hydrocarbon mix is still a very effective way of storing transportable energy, still the best way to fuel cars and trucks.