Reading Between the Lines

This news feature:

A small company in the north of England has developed the “air capture” technology to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

Experts tonight hailed the astonishing breakthrough as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against climate change and a saviour for the world’s energy crisis.

The technology, presented to a London engineering conference this week, removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The “petrol from air” technology involves taking sodium hydroxide and mixing it with carbon dioxide before “electrolysing” the sodium carbonate that it produces to form pure carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen is then produced by electrolysing water vapour captured with a dehumidifier.

The company, Air Fuel Synthesis, then uses the carbon dioxide and hydrogen to produce methanol which in turn is passed through a gasoline fuel reactor, creating petrol.

Company officials say they had produced five litres of petrol in less than three months from a small refinery in Stockton-on-Tees, Teesside.

The fuel that is produced can be used in any regular petrol tank and, if renewable energy is used to provide the electricity it could become “completely carbon neutral”.

caught my eye for a number of reasons. The first, obviously, is that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. Is this a hoax? Could be. A web site and a press release do not a breakthrough make. I actually think it’s something even simpler—misdirection.

The first question that leapt to my mind when I read the article was “how much does it cost?” It’s possible that free fuel distilled from the air is more expensive than the stuff refined from petroleum. Then there were a few words that caught my attention: electrolysing, dehumidifier, passed, gasoline fuel reactor. Not only do each of those require energy but in all likelihood more energy is used in the production process than can be produced by the fuel that’s the end product.

So, not only is this air capture technology likely to be more expensive than the petroleum-based product it’s replacing, it may not be any more “green” than the product it’s replacing. There’s no way to tell from the article itself. It’s completely dependent on the energy sources that are used.

File this one under “geoengineering”. If electricity gets cheap enough and is produced cleanly enough, air capture and conversion to usable fuel might be a good use for carbon dioxide scrubbed out of the atmosphere. Otherwise, maybe not so much.

18 comments… add one
  • My first thought reading the first sentence was, “How much electricity do they need, and where will they get it?” If the electricity need is large, then it’s potentially a useless endeavor.

    OTOH, maybe someone can put up large solar collection arrays in the deserts of the world and do the conversions there. Transmission issues for the electricity, and even its sporadic nature, would be smaller issues in this case. Build pipelines from the desert facilities to the closest established distribution centers. Et cetera.

    Now, who has the biggest and best deserts for this sort of thing?

  • Sam Link

    There was a similar fluff piece about Audi turning wind into methane just the other day.

  • Jimbino Link

    The only problem with this is the steady march of Entropy: to simplifty, in order to get useful energy, you have to start with more energy.

    If you use air and electricity to produce fuel, the fuel you produce provides less energy than the fuel needed to make the electricity, unless you have compressed or heated the air, which also represents an ultimate loss in useful energy.

    Of course, wasting tremendous amounts of energy from, say, wind, water or sun, in order to convert that energy into a more useful form, one that can be stored or transmitted or transported, can also be valuable.

    It seems that producing fuel from air and electricity would be viable if the primary energy source were wind or water, and maybe solar and nuclear, but not if it were coal, natural gas or oil, all of which are easily transported and great for storage in their original form.

  • Jimbino Link

    I can produce wind and methane at the same time!

  • What amazes me is how uncritical this article and others like it are. They have the feel of taking press releases and just reworking them a bit for publication.

  • Those writers came through the humanities, not science. They don’t know enough to be skeptical.

  • TastyBits Link

    … sodium hydroxide …

    Electricity is used to produce it. It may be better to use this energy to produce hydrogen.

    There was a proposal to use sodium hydroxide and combine it with CO2 from smokestacks.

  • Drew Link

    You glass half empties….

    I’m sending the Telegraph my outline for a perpetual motion machine in time for the Sunday papers.

    I call it the COS solution. That’s an acronym for crock of…….

  • Not even the humanities, Janis. They went to J-school. That’s even worse.

  • Yes. That’s true.

  • Though I must say, the profs at SMU weren’t bad.

    Journalism is history, and history is tied to movement, and movement is tied to ideas.

  • I don’t know what other programs are like or what they’re like now but at my alma mater (which has a top J-school) the program was a watered-down arts and sciences program. Arts and sciences without some of the tougher requirements. Essentially, prospective journalists took a series of bull courses tailored to future journalists (Intro to Journalism, History of Journalism, Journalism Law, etc.) and took a minor in some arts and sciences subject, usually poli sci, another field dominated by bull courses.

  • I had a good background, so I didn’t take a lot of the courses. I had a grammar, a history of J, a poli sci, media law, should have taken statistics, but I was rushing, and some history.

    I’d already had some art at El Centro Jr. in downtown Dallas, where I worked. Drawing, design, and sculpture. I’d had on a pair of boots and helmet arc-welding in the sculpture class.

    Now, I needed, when I went to work, photography and dark room, gov information processes, and dexedrine.

  • They truly reinforced grammar. At one time I had four different courses hounding on grammar. I should be better. But I’ve doing other things.

  • And some experience on a paper. I had two offers from profs for masters — one in J and one in history. I had to refuse them both. I needed to go make money.

  • What is this?

  • The SLT endorsed Obama in 2008.

  • Ahhh.

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