Liquid Fuels from Air. Seriously Serious People are Working on this.

March 27, 2013

It has the ring of snake oil, and there are tech hurdles to be overcome, but seriously serious people are working on air-to-fuel concepts that may have application down the road where liquid fuels remain the most practical option.

Three examples. Video above is a little dull, but demonstrates a startup firm in the UK that is working on a process for pulling co2 out of air, with the eventual goal of creating gasoline and liquid fuels. If ambient co2 is the feedstock, and renewable energy powers the process,  these fuels could be carbon neutral.(more description below)

My own take is that while electricity will eventually be the power of choice for personal vehicles, there is a liquid fuels challenge for air transport, and seagoing vessels. See more lines of exploration here – I’m sure this is a partial list.

US Navy:

Scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are developing a process to extract carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce hydrogen gas (H2) from seawater, subsequently catalytically converting the CO2 and H2 into jet fuel by a gas-to-liquids process.

“The potential payoff is the ability to produce JP-5 fuel stock at sea reducing the logistics tail on fuel delivery with no environmental burden and increasing the Navy’s energy security and independence,” says research chemist, Dr. Heather Willauer.

NRL has successfully developed and demonstrated technologies for the recovery of CO2 and the production of H2 from seawater using an electrochemical acidification cell, and the conversion of CO2 and H2 to hydrocarbons (organic compounds consisting of hydrogen and carbon) that can be used to produce jet fuel.

“The reduction and hydrogenation of CO2 to form hydrocarbons is accomplished using a catalyst that is similar to those used for Fischer-Tropsch reduction and hydrogenation of carbon monoxide,” adds Willauer. “By modifying the surface composition of iron catalysts in fixed-bed reactors, NRL has successfully improved CO2conversion efficiencies up to 60 percent.”

CO2 is an abundant carbon (C) resource in the air and in seawater, with the concentration in the ocean about 140 times greater than that in air. Two to three percent of the CO2 in seawater is dissolved CO2 gas in the form of carbonic acid, one percent is carbonate, and the remaining 96 to 97 percent is bound in bicarbonate. If processes are developed to take advantage of the higher weight per volume concentration of CO2 in seawater, coupled with more efficient catalysts for the heterogeneous catalysis of CO2 and H2, a viable sea-based synthetic fuel process can be envisioned. “With such a process, the Navy could avoid the uncertainties inherent in procuring fuel from foreign sources and/or maintaining long supply lines,” Willauer said.

Science Daily: 

Now, researchers at the University of Georgia have found a way to transform the carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere into useful industrial products. Their discovery may soon lead to the creation of biofuels made directly from the carbon dioxide in the air that is responsible for trapping the sun’s rays and raising global temperatures.

“Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do-absorb it and generate something useful,” said Michael Adams, member of UGA’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, Georgia Power professor of biotechnology and Distinguished Research Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

During the process of photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars that the plants use for energy, much like humans burn calories from food.

These sugars can be fermented into fuels like ethanol, but it has proven extraordinarily difficult to efficiently extract the sugars, which are locked away inside the plant’s complex cell walls.

“What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman,” said Adams, who is co-author of the study detailing their results published March 25 in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.”

The process is made possible by a unique microorganism called Pyrococcus furiosus, or “rushing fireball,” which thrives by feeding on carbohydrates in the super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents. By manipulating the organism’s genetic material, Adams and his colleagues created a kind of P. furiosus that is capable of feeding at much lower temperatures on carbon dioxide.

Here’s an article on the project described in the video.

The Independent:

A small British company has produced the first “petrol from air” using a revolutionary technology that promises to solve the energy crisis as well as helping to curb global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Air Fuel Synthesis in Stockton-on-Tees has produced five litres of petrol since August when it switched on a small refinery that manufactures gasoline from carbon dioxide and water vapour.

The company hopes that within two years it will build a larger, commercial-scale plant capable of producing a ton of petrol a day. It also plans to produce green aviation fuel to make airline travel more carbon-neutral.

Tim Fox, head of energy and the environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, said: “It sounds too good to be true, but it is true. 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. It’s a small pilot plant capturing air and extracting CO2 from it based on well known principles. It uses well-known and well-established components but what is exciting is that they have put the whole thing together and shown that it can work.”

Although the process is still in the early developmental stages and needs to take electricity from the national grid to work, the company believes it will eventually be possible to use power from renewable sources such as wind farms or tidal barrages.

and the Independent adds this in a later post:

A small British company which has produced the first “petrol from air” said yesterday it would refuse any investment offers from petrochemical companies because of fears the oil industry would take over the firm with the aim of closing it down.

Air Fuel Synthesis, a start-up operation based in Darlington, has been inundated with investment offers after The Independent reported it had made the first five litres of petrol from air at its small demonstration facility in Stockton-on-Tees.

The media furore over the breakthrough caused Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, to make a short diversion yesterday on a trip to the town to see the demonstration plant for himself. “Maybe I really have glimpsed the future,” Mr Clegg said.

Despite the interest in the breakthrough, however, the company’s founder and principal investor, Professor Tony Marmont, said that he and his business colleagues would not want the oil industry to take a stake in the firm even though it is actively seeking investment partners to finance the next stage of development.

Professor Marmont, who used to work for Shell, put up half of the £1.2m used to set up the company. He said he was close to a deal with a major soft-drinks company interested in using the petrol to power its carbon-neutral vehicles.

“I would shudder at the prospect of an approach from the oil industry. My reaction would be ‘I don’t want to know’ because I’d be fearful they would buy into the business and work to shut it down,” he said.

8 Responses to “Liquid Fuels from Air. Seriously Serious People are Working on this.”

  1. astrostevo Says:

    One word : Hydrogen.

    Or to be even more concise H

    • jimbills Says:

      Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. It requires an energy source like fossil fuels, nuclear, or renewables. To first really have a ‘clean’ hydrogen economy, we’d have to have a massive build-up of a renewables (or nuclaer) infrastructure. Otherwise, it’s just another fossil fuel consumer.

    • rwpikul Says:

      Hydrogen is great, except that:

      It has a lousy energy density
      It’s a pain to handle
      It’s a pain to store
      It burns invisibly
      It is very prone to detonating as a fuel-air explosive when compared to hydrocarbons.

  2. mrsircharles Says:

    Well. Unfortunately you have to invest more energy than you’re finding back in the fuel produced. That’s just basic physics. In terms of hydrogen as energy carrier AFAIK we are currently at about 60% efficiency.

  3. stephengn1 Says:

    Meanwhile, back in denierland, they’re getting it backwards yet again, spinning Pyrococcus furiosus as a nightmare for those looking to mitigate climate change

  4. The next step after implementing a carbon neutral energy economy will be an attempt to back out of the Anthropocene by burying synthesized organic material back in the Earth.

    • rwpikul Says:

      So, we’ll need compounds that are stable long term, not prone to causing contamination and are easy to handle….

      I wonder what we can make that fits those requirements?

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