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Brits develop synthetic fuel that scrubs carbon from the atmosphere

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, October 19, 2012 12:02 EDT
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Two scientists look at a green liquid. Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.
 
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Engineers in London said this week that they’ve developed a new type of synthetic vehicle fuel that’s created out of water and thin air, literally by pulling carbon molecules out of the atmosphere and recycling them.

Speaking to a conference this week put on by the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers, researchers with Air Fuel Synthesis, Ltd. said they’ve successfully married a synthetic fuel production technique that dates back to World War II with modern atmospheric carbon capture and sequestration methods.

The resulting product, they said, works in all current vehicles, can be blended with conventional fuels, and just might be a game changer for human energy and the fight against climate change if it’s ever produced on a large enough scale.

“We haven’t broken the Second Law of Thermodynamics or anything,” Air Fuel Synthesis spokesperson Graham Truscott told Raw Story. “We take carbon, we combine it with hydrogen, put it in a reactor to make methanol, then we take the methanol and put that in another reactor to make petrol. The processes of making synthetic petrol from carbon are well known and have been around for many, many years. The Germans were doing it during the Second World War. The South Africans were doing it during the apartheid years. But they were taking their carbon source from coal. We’re taking our carbon source from the atmosphere.”

That’s been a goal of many scientists over the years, and significant investment has been poured into London-based research on nanomaterials that attract carbon molecules in the atmosphere. Researchers hope that these materials will not only be able to aid in the production of carbon-neutral fuels, but could also be useful in helping prevent carbon emissions from major polluters like coal plans and oil refineries.

Similar techniques are being applied by several pioneering U.S. companies as well, which see atmospheric carbon as a potentially lucrative source of energy amid ever-declining supplies of easily obtained oil. One such company is New York-based Global Thermostat, which created a technology that enables industrial polluters to capture excess carbon for use in other products, like cement or plastic. Another company, California-based Carbon Sciences, is converting natural gas into a fuel stock for cars, and they say the same thing can be done with atmospheric carbon.

Still, neither company has gotten as far as Air Fuel Synthesis in the production of a liquid fuel that’s ready to be built out and produced on a large scale. “We’ve found opportunity to create intellectual property in areas of our process, and we think we’re the first people in the world to go all the way from capturing the carbon in the atmosphere and turning it into petrol,” Truscott said.

The drawback, of course, is that the process of creating this synthetic fuel is quite energy intensive, so it doesn’t get nearly as far toward its goal of being carbon neutral if the electricity used to synthesize atmospheric carbon into gas comes from burning fossil fuel. It’s also expensive: the team only produced about five liters of their synthetic fuel, at a cost of about $1 million for the whole project. But that’s not the point, they say.

Air Fuel Synthesis thinks the tripping points of cost and efficiency can be overcome by using renewable sources to like solar and wind to drive production, and they aim to prove it by building a large commercial plant within the next two years that will turn out up to a ton of carbon neutral fuel every day. They say their first target is the motor sports industry, which could benefit from a cleaner fuel.

“Air capture technology ultimately has the potential to become a game-changer in our quest to avoid dangerous climate change,” Dr. Tim Fox of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers said in a media advisory. “What was just a smart idea in the minds of a handful of academics a few years ago is now a proven, engineered method for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making a useful product.”

This video is from the BBC, broadcast Friday, October 19, 2012.

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(H/T: The Telegraph)

Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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