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Sierra Daily

Oct 23, 2012

Out of Thin Air

Blue sky iStock_000019945400XSmall iLexxA British firm is making headlines with its plan to make transportation-fuel-ready methanol without the use of dead dinosaurs. Just mix air and sodium hydroxide (lye) and, um, lots of energy. 

Green Car Reports provides a nice summary: “The process starts by blowing atmospheric air into a tower containing the sodium hydroxide, which binds to the carbon dioxide to form sodium carbonate. Adding energy to that substance splits out the carbon dioxide specifically, which is then stored for later use. Next, a dehumidifier removes water vapor from the air, and more energy is added to separate the hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Mix the hydrogen with the carbon dioxide in the right proportions and you produce a synthetic gaseous hydrocarbon. That, in turn, can be processed into methanol--which can be further turned into synthetic gasoline.”

The appeal: carbon-neutral gasoline. The process reuses carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere rather than burning new hydrocarbons. The problem: A huge amount of energy goes into the process, and unless that energy comes from renewable sources, it’s all far from carbon-neutral. And, as New Scientist points out, “The energy efficiency of the process has yet to be demonstrated. This matters because the technique uses electricity for key stages. It should not require more energy input than is gleaned from burning the fuel it produces.”

So far, Air Fuel Synthesis in Stockton-on-Tees in northern England has a “demonstration facility” that operates from the national utility grid. But Peter Harrison, the company’s chief executive, told the Independent that “we can be producing petrol using renewable energy and doing it on a commercial basis” by 2014. The company told Reuters that it is “confident that the technology could be scaled up to refinery size in the future. Each of the processes that go into making the fuel already take place separately on an industrial scale.” For now, the company hopes to build a commercial plant that will make specialist fuels for the motorsports sector.

Image by iStock/iLexx.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

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