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Biotech Earth Power News

Gasoline From Thin Air 283

Posted by kdawson
from the vanadium-nitrogenase dept.
disco_tracy writes "An enzyme found in the roots of soybeans could be the key to cars that run on air. If perfected, the tech could lead to cars partially powered on their own fumes. Even further into the future, vehicles could draw fuel from the air itself. Quoting: 'The new enzyme can only make two and three carbon chains, not the longer strands that make up liquid gasoline. However, Ribbe thinks he can modify the enzyme so it could produce gasoline. ... [Perfecting this process] won't happen anytime soon... "It's very, very difficult," to extract the vanadium nitrogenase, said Ribbe.'
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Gasoline From Thin Air

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  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Friday August 06, 2010 @02:58PM (#33166284) Journal
    Vaporware, literally.
  • Misleading Summary (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dfetter (2035) <david@fetter.org> on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:00PM (#33166342) Homepage Journal

    The actual article is about an enzyme. The chemical transformation still requires energy, just as charging a battery does.

    • by hitmark (640295) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:18PM (#33166656) Journal

      indeed, thats what gasoline is, a energy container. Its just that its the perfect combo as its highly stable (relative to just about anything else with equivalent energy density), yet will release the energy quickly if poked in the right way.

      i keep wondering if one could turn a highway into a kind of electric railroad tho, by equipping electric vehicles with a system to tap supply system pretty much like a electric train do today. So for longer stretches, one would not drain whatever internal storage system one have available.

      • Also the article mentions, "cars partially powered by fumes".

        We already have that via exhaust gas recirculation. I don't know how common it is in gasoline engines, but in diesels it's pretty standard. It's a way to reduce unburnt hydrocarbons and soot by feeding the exhaust back into the engine.

        • by ArsonSmith (13997)

          It reduces nitrogen creation by bringing the cylinder temperature down. It takes power away from the engine not power it. That's why there's an EGR controller that turns it off when you need the power.

    • What if your battery was charging based on the air around it - and the air it comes in contact with is constantly changing since you are moving?

      The idea has SOME merit, though they are no where near that stage.

    • by jpmorgan (517966) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:41PM (#33167006) Homepage

      True, but batteries suck. As much as they've improved in recent years, they're still far less useful than fuel. Carbon chains, especially hydrocarbons, are relatively stable, energy dense, easy to transport and comparatively easy to convert into mechanical or electric energy. If you can find a way to efficiently and easily produce hydrocarbons directly from carbon dioxide, water and an arbitrary energy source, you've basically just solved any energy crisis and cured global warming.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Rei (128717)

        We have one. It's called the Fischer-Tropsch process (plus electrolysis). The problem is that the fuel is super-expensive at today's energy prices.

        Hydrocarbons are not "comparatively easy" to convert to mechanical or electrical energy. Compared to an electric motor powered by a battery, an internal combustion engine is a veritable Rube Goldberg Contraption.

        As for batteries: they've had an 8% energy density improvement per year for the past two decades. That rate shows no sign of slowing down; rather, it

      • by Rei (128717)

        Wait, you said dioxide, not monoxide (which is strange, since the article is talking about CO, not CO2). In that case, change my post from "Fischer-Tropsch" to "Sabatier".

    • That was my first thought too - where the energy input into the system? Making gasoline locally may or may not be sane, depending on how much energy input (from other sources) is required to produce a given energy output in the form of gasoline.

  • Cars powered by natural gas is an already proven technology. Why do we keep inventing more "alternative" energy sources when we've got ones that work now?

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Because ultimately, natural gas has many of the same issues as petroleum.

      • by stdarg (456557)

        But it also has significant advantages over petroleum, like the huge supply in the US. And it has advantages over other alternatives, like the fact that it's available now, and it's cheap. I don't particularly like the idea, I'd rather see fully electric cars and more nuclear power, but it shouldn't be dismissed.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Andy Dodd (701)

          The analyses that claim a huge supply in the US are starting to come under criticism. Our supply may not actually be that huge.

          There's also the fact that right now, we haven't figured out how to safely extract a large portion of it. Most of the deposits can't be accessed without hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) - The chemicals used for hydrofracking are toxic as hell, and wells that are hydrofracked seem to be prone to losing integrity and leaking gas into aquifers. That's why in Dimock, PA, you can'

    • by mosb1000 (710161)

      Right now your catalytic converter converts CO (which is a partial combustion product) into C02 and heat. They're saying this enzyme could turn it into propane, which could then be burned again in the engine thereby using the energy that would normally be wasted.

      They're also suggesting that you could split CO2 from the atmosphere into CO (probably by electrolysis) and use it to produce gasoline for fuel. That would be an achievement because it solves a lot or energy storage problems.

      • Re:Vapor? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by camperdave (969942) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:59PM (#33167280) Journal
        I'd be more interested in splitting the CO2 into carbon and oxygen, for breathing purposes rather than fuel. Spacecraft and submarines use lithium hydroxide "scrubbers" to remove carbon dioxide from the air. It has the side effect of keeping one of the oxygen atoms of the molecule as well as the carbon. The lithium hydroxide is also used up in this process, meaingin a limited supply of breatheable air. If the CO2 is can be cracked back into carbon and oxygen, then you could develop a continuously renewing cycle for the air. This means fewer supply runs for ISS and other outposts.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Rei (128717)

        Right now your catalytic converter converts CO (which is a partial combustion product) into C02 and heat. They're saying this enzyme could turn it into propane, which could then be burned again in the engine thereby using the energy that would normally be wasted.

        Wow, you could take the <1% of your exhaust that's carbon monoxide, convert it to fuel (losses), then burn it (average vehicle energy usage efficiency, after all losses: 20%). Yeah, that's really going to up your mpg. :P

        They're also suggesting t

      • by sjames (1099)

        I would like to see a comparison between using the enzyme to recycle CO in the exhaust as propane (or gasoline) vs using a conventional catalytic converter to power a simple heat engine in a hybrid.

        If our pollution ever gets so bad that cars can generate gasoline out of thin air, we won't care because the CO concentration will have long ago killed us all. It could potentially be used to make syngas, but it will have to compete with other already working technologies there.

    • Well, because natural gas fields deplete much, much more rapidly than oil fields (http://depletion.blogspot.com/2009/01/natural-gas-crisis-looming.html). While I agree that we can and should diversify our transportation sector infrastructure to use hydrocarbon gases, it's not a permanent or even a long term answer. It can slow down powerdown though and give us more time to transition. I think that's the greatest value in NG.

    • Re:Vapor? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday August 06, 2010 @08:53PM (#33170626) Homepage Journal

      Because we can burn natgas in Combined Cycle power plants at over 80% efficiency, instead of in cars at under 18% efficiency. So we should put all the natgas we can into generating electricity instead of using filthy, inefficient coal plants, rather than diverting that gas into cars at under 1/4 the efficiency. In other words, use under 1/4 the natgas to make electricity rather than wasting 3/4 of the energy in it in cars.

      Just because T Boone Pickens has a plan to create scarcity in the glut of natgas he owns so much of, to drive up prices by wasting 3/4 of it, doesn't mean we should do it.

  • Sort of like a subway, train or PRT vehicle [wikipedia.org]?
  • by FrYGuY101 (770432) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:01PM (#33166354) Journal
    In this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!
  • Stupid journalists (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Wonko the Sane (25252) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:04PM (#33166404) Journal

    I highly doubt that the original inventor has claimed to produce perpetual motion, but the summary will certainly lead people to think in that direction.

    They're converting carbon monoxide into hydrocarbon chains. The only energy you are getting out of the car's exhaust is what it didn't use the first time around due to incomplete combustion.

  • ... if and only if someone can make a profit out of it. Hydrogen is the future as it requires you to fill up a fuel container of some sort in exchange for money. Who here really thinks all these multi-billion oil companies are going to let free and abundant fuel circulate without putting up a fight?? Be honnest: it would be against the nature of capitalis. I mean, free stuff is only good if you can resell it to someone else, right?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by ScentCone (795499)
      Who here really thinks all these multi-billion oil companies are going to let ...

      Yeah, just like they've used their secret fleet of black helicopters (which they lease from the Trilateral Commission) to fly around the country to squash all of the Free Energy inventions, especially the water powered car, and that one that gets double the mileage if you just use a different air filter.

      What are you, twelve years old?
    • Unless "the man" is going to come spray black spray paint on your solar panels and tear your wind turbines down with Oil and Gas pickup trucks, I'm fairly certain renewables are the future. They of course *do* have an upfront investment, but with lifetimes measured in decades, it seems to be a worthwhile investment.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Who here really thinks all these multi-billion oil companies are going to let free and abundant fuel circulate without putting up a fight?? Be honnest: it would be against the nature of capitalis. I mean, free stuff is only good if you can resell it to someone else, right?

      Like the RIAA? But how are the energy companies going to fight it? I'd be willing to bet that in fifty years you won't see any more power lines or gas stations; electricity will be generated by solar cells and windmills on your roof and b

    • by PagosaSam (884523)
      Yes, but if you could take that same H2 and some coal or Nat gas and make gasoline, cheap with an enzyme... No more oil imports, little to no infrastructure changes! Sounds good to me!
    • Your comment is incredibly uncreative. Assume you had built an engine that could run on nothing but air (and cost of manufacturing were the same,etc). Are you telling me you couldn't figure out a way to make money off it? The 'nature' of capitalism, when done right, is exactly that: a new way of doing something comes along and replaces an old way. The people who were tied to the old way suffer in the short term, but after a while the entire economy benefits as they are freed to do something that creates
  • by Lonewolf666 (259450) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:07PM (#33166444)

    To produce the fuel, the energy that will be stored in it has to come from somewhere> .

    That's why the idea of a vehicle creating its own fuel out of thin air is stupid, you'd want to use the input energy to drive the car directly. More efficient.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Yes, it's not coming out of thin air, it's being extract from the air around you. Out of thin air is generally used to mean 'from nothing'. That is not the case hear, and they should avoid using the expression because it obviously confuses people like you.

      ".. you'd want to use the input energy to drive the car directly. More efficient."
      depends on many practical factors.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by sjames (1099)

        It still doesn't work. There is significant energy stored in CO so I can see a catalyzed reaction where some completes oxidation and the rest plus water becomes propane, but there's not that much CO in the air (otherwise we would all die).

  • by GPLDAN (732269) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:07PM (#33166450)
    Look, this pie in the sky shit is bull. I appreciate R&D much more than most, but we're not going to start chaining carbon atoms on the fly anytime soon, any more than we are just around the corner from inventing the battery that powers Iron Man's suit.


    Let's focus on the here and now. A guy named John Wayland who works for Dow Kokam built a 10 second car from LiON batteries, and is now going around to America's drag strips and laying waste to Corvettes and Nissan GTRs in his 1960s Datsun 1200. And when I mean laying waste, I mean a beatdown. Take a look at this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rVTIpS5zb4&feature=player_embedded [youtube.com]

    This is what we should be looking at. Building a power infrastructure that makes 208 twist locks as easy to get to as gas stations. Or converting gas stations to have a nice 200W 20Amp at every pump. Not this crap.
    • by russotto (537200) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:17PM (#33166654) Journal

      This is what we should be looking at. Building a power infrastructure that makes 208 twist locks as easy to get to as gas stations. Or converting gas stations to have a nice 200W 20Amp at every pump.

      200W? The flow through a gasoline fuel hose can be expressed in watts if you care to. Gasoline has about 32 megajoules per liter. Maximum gas pump in the US is 10 gallons per minute, or 0.63 liters per second. Thus the energy flow rate is 20 megajoules per second -- that is, 20 megawatts. If a gasoline engine is only 1/4 as efficient as an electric engine and there are no charging losses, you can derate that to 5 MW to get the equivalent electric power needed. So, you can keep that 20 amps... provided you're willing to charge at 250,000V. Good luck with that.

      • by sohp (22984)

        How about 50kW [engadget.com]?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Rei (128717)

          How about 800kW [gas2.org]?

          50kW barely even qualifies to be called rapid charging.

          For those wondering what rapid chargers look like -- a couple hundred kW rapid charger is usually a box about the size of 1-2 small soda machines with a cable about the size of a gas hose (but heavier) coming off it. The aforementioned 800kW charger is the size of four large soda machines pushed back to back.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        This problem (the relatively slow rate of pumping energy into a battery) is why some are advocating for an electric-car infrastructure based on swapping-out battery packs, rather than charging the battery slowly. Essentially, you drive up to a power-station (maybe designed more like an auto-car-wash than a current gas-pump) where your battery pack is pulled out and replaced with one that is fully charged. The power station keeps a bunch of battery packs on-site, with a bunch of them charging, and a bunch of
        • by Rei (128717) on Friday August 06, 2010 @04:31PM (#33167794) Homepage

          That's not it at all. The main problem with swapping battery packs is an infrastructure management problem.

          First off, if there was only one type of battery pack, that would be rough enough. Stations would have to have large stores of surplus battery packs, which cost $10k or more each, take up a large amount of space, and weigh hundreds of pounds. But there's not ever going to be just one kind of battery pack, and it's not for a lack of interest. Different vehicles have different needs. Luxury car owners can afford better, longer-range battery packs than owners of economy cars. RWD cars need the weight in the rear, taking up part of the trunk area. Depending on the layout, a sedan either needs a pack under the floor or in a T-shape down the center tunnel. Pickups have different layout needs than SUVs than cars and so on. Want to try to fit an SUV pack into a motorcycle?

          Now factor in that battery chemistry is a huge moving target right now. Even drivetrains and inverters are a moving target. You can't standardize on a single voltage charge/discharge profile in such circumstances. Really, you're talking about stocking dozens of each of dozens of different types of battery pack at every station, and having these stations dense enough to support long distance travel. It's just not going to happen. And as if that's not bad enough, there's also some real engineering challenges, like making such an integral part of the vehicle's structure readily removeable and reattachable over many cycles, and especially the removal and reattachment of the electrical hookups.

          Battery swapping was an idea envisioned when rapid charging was much more difficult. It no longer is. So there's no need for it any more. Modern li-ion cells can charge in minutes without ruining the pack's lifespan if you can provide sufficient A) power and B) cooling.

        • by Grishnakh (216268) on Friday August 06, 2010 @05:20PM (#33168582)

          2. "Bad batteries". People worry about the idea of swapping out their good/brand-new (but drained) battery and getting a crappy used one in return. But this is because people are thinking in terms of owning the battery-packs. What would probably instead happen is that you buy a car and then sign up with some provider of battery-packs. You basically lease a battery from their pool, and can swap it at any participating station. You don't own any of the batteries but pay for the cost of the electricity and the battery packs together, and over time, either paying each time you get a new fully-charged battery, or having some kind of account/membership/bill that you pay monthly. The "bad battery" problem then amounts to a corporate reputation issue. Presumably there will be different suppliers/companies, some with better quality control (retiring old batteries) than others...

          I still don't see quite how this will work, unless we move to a government-owned or monopoly service station. Otherwise, what happens when you get a swap at a Chevron station and get a bad battery pack, and then when it runs out (prematurely) you swap it at a Texaco station? How does Texaco get reimbursed by Chevron, without a legal fight and finger-pointing? These battery packs are going to be quite expensive on their own, obviously.

          Surely you don't advocate only being able to exchange batteries at stations owned by the same company? What would happen if you're on a road trip and the only station in the small, rural town you're driving through isn't a participant in your lease contract, and your battery's nearly dead? The whole point of hot-swappable battery packs is to preserve the basically unlimited range that today's cars have (as long as a gas station (any brand) is around). If you're going to tie people to a certain company, then it would be unsafe to ever leave your town, and this means you'd never need to exchange your battery as you'll just drive home to recharge it.

      • by GPLDAN (732269)
        That is some fancy math you got there, despite much of it being a false dichotomy. Fancy, though.

        John charges his car in 4 hours using 230V@30A. He gets about 200 miles out of that, provided he doesn't let the car stand for a week on end without using it.

        End of story. You take into account his weight, the fact that car weighs half as much as a volt, etc etc. You're the math whiz. He charges it at the end of this video.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIHyHFq9iwk&feature=related [youtube.com]
        • by Grishnakh (216268)

          That's a pathetically slow recharging time. Right now, I can spend less than 5 minutes refilling my gas tank, and that gives me about 350 miles of range. If I'm taking a road trip, I can probably drive 500-750 miles per day (750 if I have another person to help with the driving). Having to sit around some shitty service station for 4 hours recharging for a mere 200 miles would make my road trip 3-4 times as long. No thanks.

          Unless they can figure out how to get electric cars to recharge completely in wel

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jpmorgan (517966)

      Yes, because society should only ever work on one thing at a time. The technology that exists today is perfect and cannot be improved upon. These so-called scientists should be throwing away their useless "research," start rolling up their sleeves and laying down concrete for EV charging stations. I think we can all agree that this is the best long-term strategy for solving our energy problems.

      The video is cool, but the rest of your comment is too ridiculous to justify a non-sarcastic response.

    • Let's focus on the here and now. A guy named John Wayland who works for Dow Kokam built a 10 second car from LiON batteries, and is now going around to America's drag strips and laying waste to Corvettes and Nissan GTRs in his 1960s Datsun 1200. And when I mean laying waste, I mean a beatdown. Take a look at this video:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rVTIpS5zb4&feature=player_embedded [youtube.com]

      Yeah, that's cute. How's it do on the skid pad? Or and endurance race? Here's a "streetable" Supra that ran 9 flat in this run, and is running in the 8.6's now:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pszfCIg_Fw&NR=1

      If you're looking to go 1/4 mile in a straight line, I'd say you should look at the nitromethane monstrosities that are running a 1/4 in under 4.5 seconds these days.

      This is what we should be looking at. Building a power infrastructure that makes 208 twist locks as easy to get to as gas stations. Or converting gas stations to have a nice 200W 20Amp at every pump. Not this crap.

      Meh, personally I''m holing out for "Mr. Fusion."

      • by GPLDAN (732269)
        On the skid pad, it would come down to weight distribution and the suspension settings. The battery packs make the car rear-heavy, which is why is followers usually mount the electric motor in the block harness, since it's the next heaviest thing and they have to retrofit it to the diff.

        John in his videos seems to indicate he can go about 200 miles on one charge at highway speeds. And it takes 4 hours using 230V@30A to re-charge. Perfect? No. A good start, though.
    • Let's focus on the here and now. A guy named John Wayland who works for Dow Kokam built a 10 second car from LiON batteries, and is now going around to America's drag strips and laying waste to Corvettes and Nissan GTRs in his 1960s Datsun 1200.

      When our national transportation infrastructure shifts to being built around dragsters - that will be a useful data point.

    • That's actually pretty pathetic. An electric motor has FAR FAR more torque than a gasoline motor. I use to race R/C cars when I was a teenager and I would routinely bet foolish classmates that my R/C car could beat their real car in a quarter mile. I was using a 12volt battery pack and a 30,000 RPM motor. I'd condition the battery pack until it was capable of dumping 90amps wide open. My top speed was only about 50mph with it, but it was doing 50mph about 10 feet off the starting line. Sometimes I'd even me
    • "...built a 10 second car..."

      Too bad I live farther than 10 seconds from work. Look, until we can pack enough power into cheap batteries to go more than 100-200 miles on a charge (or charge those packs in a few minutes), electric cars are just a short range novelty.

      And don't go spouting off about how 90% of trips are less than 50 miles. What do I do for the other 10% of my trips? Sit around and wish I had a long range car?

    • by Hillgiant (916436)

      But how am I going to get the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity I need?

  • by russotto (537200) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:09PM (#33166506) Journal

    Turning carbon monoxide into hydrocarbon fuel is a trick that's been known for some time now. Presumably this enzyme does it at room temperature, which would be a useful trick, but it's not a new one. Show me the enzyme which can convert carbon dioxide and water to hydrocarbon fuel, instead... right now we need the whole organism to do it, it'd be a lot simpler if it was just one enzyme.

    • Converting carbon dioxide to hydrocarbons is a solved problem [freepatentsonline.com].

    • Show me the enzyme which can convert carbon dioxide and water to hydrocarbon fuel, instead... right now we need the whole organism to do it, it'd be a lot simpler if it was just one enzyme.

      Enzymes are like UNIX: one tool to solve one problem. You're asking for a Windows solution. One of the many benefits of having enzymes that only catalyze one or possibly two steps in a reaction is that they're much easier to regulate, individually and as a system, since you can use feedback and feedforward, based on the concentration of the reactants and products, so you can get a system that works like a manufacturing kanban [wikipedia.org] system. Another benefit is that small enzymes are easier to make and last longe

    • by ErikZ (55491) *

      Instead of having one super-amazing enzyme, why not do it in stages?

      Cows have 4 digestive compartments for a reason. :)

  • by PingXao (153057) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:45PM (#33167076)

    These are a staple on slashdot lately. Every crackpot scheme to extract energy from X very cheaply seems to get immediate front page coverage. There's at least one a month and they range from overblown PR at best to outright snake oil at worst. /. seriously needs a "Perpetual Motion" category for these stories so I can ignore them completely.

  • What the hell is going on. Finally some one develops an Atmospheric Engine, but it is not John Galt? I'll just shrug and walk away.
  • Running off your own exhaust? Like other have written I don't think that's legit. Still, if you could make gasoline out of air even if you had to add energy it could still be useful. Basically you're making a pumpable battery out of air. On top of that after you're done "discharging" your battery it turns back into air. Never mind the fact that if you could create this the infrastructure to use it is already here. (Let me guess, either they can't scale it up or it's no where near efficient enough.) Actually
  • This sounds to me like it's venturing into perpetual motion machine territory. Also, if this technology were eventually to become realistic and practical I'm curious to know what the impact would be on the environment given that such vehicles would be drawing their fuel directly from the air. I could be wrong, but it seems like the impact could be significantly worse than anything today's vehicles might do.

  • by thegarbz (1787294) on Friday August 06, 2010 @07:23PM (#33169960)
    Gasoline is a complex mixture of hydrocarbon chains of various lengths and shapes. Why the heck would you take something like this and try to modify it to create gasoline rather than approaching the task from the other point of view. Here in Australia we have cars that run on LPG and I believe our standard mixture is about 70% C4H10 and about 30% C3H8. Why not take one of these engines and modify it to run on just the C3H8 that this enzyme claims to create then focus on the important aspect of increasing the efficiency and speed of conversion.
  • OK.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by smash (1351) on Friday August 06, 2010 @10:26PM (#33171128) Homepage Journal

    ... but how much propane can they get out of this process. How many million square km of this plant will they need to keep up with consumption of propane (as an alternative to gasoline) or gasoline (when they figure out how to get that)?

    If the numbers are not realistic (e.g., we need 2x arable earth surfaces to keep up with current consumption), it is a non-starter.

    Kinda neat, but not going to solve the world's problems.

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