How much of a game changer will new air-to-petrol fuel be?

Within a week we have heard of a cryogenic process turning air into gas and now of a start-up company in Stockton on Tees successfully producing petrol from air in a process attested to by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The air-to-petrol process is an innovation from Air Fuel Synthesis. It extracts carbon dioxide from air and mixes it with hydrogen extracted from water to make methanol, which will then be refined into other hydrocarbons.

After The Independent published on its success on Friday, the small company is now under bombardment with offers of investment. This will take the process to the next stage of demonstrating commercial implementation.

Interestingly, the team that has developed this process is today refusing pressing offers of investment from oil companies, fearing that the end intention would be acquisition followed by shut down to stop up competition.

The intention is to see petrol, aviation fuel and plastics produced from this clean source of storable renewable energy – which has the huge additional environmental value of recycling our carbon dioxide emissions.

The fuel produced is clean, without additives and can be used in existing engines, avoiding any conversion costs.

Tim Fox, who is Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, says: It sounds too good to be true but it is true’, noting that the company is using well known processes and that the innovation has come from ‘making it happen as a process’.

It will be 2014 before they are in a position to demonstrate a trial commercial plant’s production of a tone of petrol a day. In the current development process they have produced 5 litres of methanol since August.

Finding this on the forecourt is some time away – but not that long. This is light at the end of one of the tunnels we face in our struggle to replace oil as a universal energy source; and with something which is less environmentally damaging.

This invention is clearly a game-changer.

Looking down the road a bit, might we reach a stage where city air was cleaner than country air?

Heavily urbanised and industrial areas are the greatest producers of carbon emissions, so they will be the richest locations for the plants producing petrol from carbon dioxide-laden air. We may see a logical juxtaposition of such plants below the flight paths in the near approaches to airports – where the possible downing of a faulty aircraft into the fuel stores at such a plant would become an issue.

Might large cargo ships on long passages carry their own recycling plants?

And will we see battery cattle?

Will this process even be an encouragement to lifestyles that major on producing carbon emissions? Stand by for the return of the CFC [chlorofluorocarbon] sprays we have had to replace by lumpy pump action jobs.

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17 Responses to How much of a game changer will new air-to-petrol fuel be?

  1. Using renewable electricity to produce hydrogen for use as a fuel is not a novel idea (See the Hydrogen Office), but at the moment it is not commercially viable in spite of the development of fuel cell vehicles and firms like BMW producing direct hydrogen-fuelled cars.

    Using even more electricity to then combine the electrolysed hydrogen with CO2 extracted fom the air means the whole provess is going to be so energy-intensive that it will require vast amounts of electricity. It might be a viable proposition for some windfarms, but it would be a nonsense using any generation source where the fuel cost money.

    So no, this process is unlikely to be a game change. As for using it as a means of removing CO2 from the air – well, as soon as the fuel is burnt exactly the same amount of CO2 goes back in – plus of course all the CO2 already added by the process of making the fuel.

    And – they’ve produced five litres since August! I would like to know how much electricity they have used to do this.

    Sorry, no ‘magic bullet’, no something for nothing.

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  2. The only way to make this work is massive overcapacity of electricity production – and even then the inefficiency means it would be pretty much a last resort. My suspicion is that the attempts to use algae to produce hydro-carbon fuels directly are likely to prove more efficient.

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  3. As I understand, the cryogenic process is to use electricity to turn air into a liquid, and then use the energy created when it’s allowed to revert to air to generate electricity. It’s intended to be a way of storing energy, and doesn’t seem to harm the environment in the process.
    What I completely fail to understand is this new process – which uses electricity to create hydrocarbons out of air and water.
    So far so clever, but then those hydrocarbons need combustion to create energy, and this doesn’t seem to have been picked up (by the BBC, at any rate) as being no more environmentally friendly than any other hydrocarbon combustion process.
    So the only benefit would be if the production process was less harmful than extracting hydrocarbons from the ground, or – in the longer term – if underground reserves run out before we’ve developed replacements for hydrocarbons as fuel.

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    • The problem with burning hydrocarbons from the ground is that you’re increasing the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere (plus other pollutants that aren’t got rid of during refining). If your hydrocarbon fuel is made by pulling CO2 out of the air and the electricity you use to produce it is renewable, then you are not going to be causing a net increase in CO2 levels. What’s happening is that you’re creating the hydro-carbon as an energy storage mechanism. The multi-trillion pound question is whether that can be enabled more efficiently and with less resource cost than other proposed energy storage mechanisms, such as molten salts, liquified air, direct hydrogen storage, pumped hydro, new battery types, bioengineered sunlight-fuel conversion, induction plates in the road etc. There are a whole load of proposed solutions to addressing both how to power vehicles and how to deal with fluctuating electricity supply and demand. The latter problem is probably going to be cheapest to manage by demand management, the former is probably the tougher one to solve, but my bet is on bioengineering plus better battery technology.

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  4. Sorry to add my voice to the doubting Thomases, but this is certainly no game changer. What they are proposing is variant on well known synthetic fuel production methods – which were pioneered by Nazi Germany during WW2. Oil is basically a complex mixture of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen molecules (CHO). It is perfectly possible to take the carbon from carbon dioxide and the hydrogen and oxygen from water. You have to disassociate the carbon dioxide and water molecules then re-assemble them. This is exactly what plants do, using sunlight as the energy source. However, you have to put in a lot more energy than you get back out so the crucial question is where is that energy coming from? Unless it is surplus renewable electricity or nuclear then the process is most definitely not carbon neutral. I notice that the man from the company avoided the question as to how efficient the process was. I very much doubt that the energetics would ever make this an attractive process for mass production of fuel – synthetic fules that make use of relatively cheap feedstocks such as coal are not economically competitive with fossil oil so I cannot see this process becoming competitive as it starts from much lower energy potentials than exist in coal.

    However, this is not to say that the process is without merit. The clue to their reasoning is in their target market: synthetic fuels for motor racing. The technical advantages of using a fuel that would be relatively free from impurities are obvious but not in themselves particularly persuasive for going down this route (conventional clean up processes would be more cost effective) but the chance to portray motor racing as a green sport is something that the F1 and related organisations might be prepared to pay a hefty premium for.

    Why not just use algal biofuels? Well, the first problem is that algae are good at producing oils that can easily be converted to diesel and related aviation fuels but not so good at producing high octane petrols (though it can be done). The second may be simply of image. F1 is about cutting edge technology taken to the limit and the image of making fuel from air and water is, let’s face it, cool.

    Lean burn engines using (eventually) algal biofuels are the way to go for mass market transportation systems.

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  5. The US Navy are working on a similar process to produce jet fuel on ships, so there’s lots of money going into it. I could see it being used as a means of reducing the cost of tying in remote windfarms to the grid; over a certain output gets used to produce fuel via this process, allowing a smaller and cheaper grid connection. Precious little being said about the efficiency of the process, so I’m not celebrating yet.

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    • I doubt the marginal cost of higher capacity connection, once you’re paying the installation cost, is likely to outweigh the losses from inefficiency with this system.

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  6. Newsroom – don’t throw away your pump action sprays just yet. CFCs are potent greenhouses gases, but they were mainly banned due to their ozone-layer-destroying properties. They won’t be coming back.

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  7. As others have said, in the absence of any conversion efficiency figures, it’s difficult to judge the potential of the synthetic petrol story. The most striking feature of media coverage of it was that it was elevated to an alchemic-sounding process of ‘making petrol out of air & water’, when of course it is a method of making petrol out of electricity.

    If it could be made to work, and the conversion efficiency can be got up to a reasonable level, the one obvious, massive advantage is that petrol is a uniquely high-density and easily handled method of storing energy, likely to remain for ever a far more practical transport energy source than either hydrogen or batteries. Also, the infrastructure for distributing it and the technology for utilising it for transport, er, already exist and are highly developed. It could, if the efficiency and scale can be made workable, be a much quicker and less disruptive and wasteful method of ‘greening’ personal transport than everyone switching to electric cars, and certainly much ‘greener’ than giving over vast areas of land to growing biofuel crops. Always assuming, of course, that renewable electricity production can be ramped up at a suitable rate…

    No disrespect to algal biofuels which are the other exciting possibility for transport. However, if I have understood it correctly, algal biofuels are, in very crude terms, a method of making diesel out of sunlight, rather than petrol out of electricity. Given that a large issue with increasing renewables input to our electricity system is the difficulty of balancing instantaneous supply & demand, a method of utilising the surplus to produce an easily-stored transport fuel which can be distributed through existing fuel supply infrastructure is a pretty exciting possibility, however remote it sounds at present.

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    • Tim: for the mass production of algal biofuels sunlight is indeed the intended energy source. However, you could also use surplus renewable electricity to produce algal biofuels (by powering lights which grow the algae). Similarly, you can store the energy as hydrogen (though this is a less useful product as you need specialised engines to handle hydrogen).

      Using surplus electricity to grow algae will have its greatest attractions on islands using wind (or wave) power as their main method of generating electricity and where diesel generators are used as the back up. Surplus electricity produced at night can be used to produce algae that can be turned into biodiesel. The efficiency isn’t great (about 10%) but the process requires very little in the way of fancy technology and is easily scaleable.

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      • Is it my imagination or would this be a brilliant ‘fit’ with the existing skills base, facilities and demand on Islay? – especially with the upcoming tidestream turbines in the Sound of Islay (and the price of island petrol and diesel)

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  8. This all boils down to energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) as other posters have commented, and given that energy costs money, there is also the question of whether it would ever make economic sense. True, there may be niche applications but that is not the same as being a universal solution to transport needs.

    You also have to consider the process over the whole cycle. Electric motors are very efficient at turning energy into useful work (moving a car), whereas combustion engines are much less so, so further energy losses will be incurred in the use of the fuel.

    Unless we find ourselves in a world with limitless renewable energy the ‘convenience’ of this solution will not justify the costs, financial or environmental.

    So we have a renewable energy solution which may work technically but could be described as ‘costly and inefficient’ – where on FA have we heard that accusation levelled? Against wind turbines perhaps?

    In any event it is only as ‘renewable’ as the energy source used to deliver it.

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