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Scientists Turn Air Into Petrol 580

Posted by Soulskill
from the take-that-dead-dinosaurs dept.
rippeltippel writes "The Independent reports on a scientific breakthrough which would allow us to synthesize petrol from thin air. Quoting from the article: 'Air Fuel Synthesis in Stockton-on-Tees has produced five liters of petrol since August when it switched on a small refinery that manufactures gasoline from carbon dioxide and water vapor. The company hopes that within two years it will build a larger, commercial-scale plant capable of producing a ton of petrol a day. It also plans to produce green aviation fuel to make airline travel more carbon-neutral. ... Tim Fox, head of energy and the environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, said: "It sounds too good to be true, but it is true. They are doing it and I've been up there myself and seen it. The innovation is that they have made it happen as a process. It's a small pilot plant capturing air and extracting CO2 from it based on well known principles. It uses well-known and well-established components but what is exciting is that they have put the whole thing together and shown that it can work." Although the process is still in the early developmental stages and needs to take electricity from the national grid to work, the company believes it will eventually be possible to use power from renewable sources such as wind farms or tidal barrages. "We've taken carbon dioxide from air and hydrogen from water and turned these elements into petrol," said Peter Harrison, the company's chief executive, who revealed the breakthrough at a conference at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London."
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Scientists Turn Air Into Petrol

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  • Net energy? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Gothmolly (148874) on Friday October 19, 2012 @08:46AM (#41704147)

    I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this consumes far more energy than it "creates".

    • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by second_coming (2014346) on Friday October 19, 2012 @08:47AM (#41704169)
      does that really matter if they are going to power it using renewable energy?
      • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by halltk1983 (855209) <halltk1983@yahoo.com> on Friday October 19, 2012 @08:55AM (#41704279) Homepage Journal
        If you have a net loss of 80% from this and a 50% net loss from batteries, then it matters 30%. That means you need 30% more "renewable resources", meaning 30% more windmills or solar. However, something like this might be a good way of handling the extra energy generated at night, and other off peak times, so we can increase the base load handled by nuclear.
        • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by drewco (1631735) on Friday October 19, 2012 @08:57AM (#41704299)
          Bingo! If nothing else, it is a useful way to store collected energy that would otherwise (and is currently) going to waste.
          • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by mcgrew (92797) * on Friday October 19, 2012 @11:16AM (#41706213) Homepage Journal

            Indeed, amd what's more, it allows automobiles to use renewable energy without a carbon footprint, since the carbon it emits originally came from modern air.

            • by AmiMoJo (196126)

              Everyone seems to have forgotten about the other pollution that comes from burning petrol. I live next to a main road and the soot/dust is horrendous.

              • by Medievalist (16032) on Friday October 19, 2012 @04:48PM (#41709779)

                Most gasoline powered cars emit very little soot. Diesels (particularly the redneck black smokers purposely de-tuned to produce more smoke) emit much more.

                But all vehicles generate brake dust and tire dust [phys.org]. Over the years the brake vendors have been trying to make the stuff less toxic, but since you "live next to a main road and the soot/dust is horrendous" you can expect a higher incidence of certain illnesses in your family. If police cars and emergency vehicles use the road a lot, that's even worse, because they are usually allowed to use high-performance brake pads that are loaded with known carcinogens.

        • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Skal Tura (595728) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:04AM (#41704383) Homepage

          and batteries cannot store at sane cost significant enough amount of energy.
          There is a reason why massive battery arrays really don't exist ...

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Actually, if the average weight of you tank of petrol, as it is used up, is significantly less than your stack of batteries would be (which don't get any lighter as you use them up), then the batteries can be worse. It will take more energy to push your heavy, battery laiden car around than it will to push the petrol powered one. As long as the petrol is coming from a renewable source like airborne CO2 captured with solar or wind generated electricity, then you've eliminated it's biggest drawbacks, making

          • by Nadaka (224565)

            Actually, batteries do get lighter when you use them.

          • by hawguy (1600213)

            Actually, if the average weight of you tank of petrol, as it is used up, is significantly less than your stack of batteries would be (which don't get any lighter as you use them up), then the batteries can be worse. It will take more energy to push your heavy, battery laiden car around than it will to push the petrol powered one. As long as the petrol is coming from a renewable source like airborne CO2 captured with solar or wind generated electricity, then you've eliminated it's biggest drawbacks, making it carbon neutral, and no longer a scarce and depletable resource.

            Since you can recover much of the energy spent in accelerating that mass of batteries when you decelerate, as well as capture much of the energy spent getting it up the hill when you go downhill, most of the cost of carrying around the extra weight is rolling resistance, which is a small fraction of the extra weight. So carrying extra battery weight isn't as detrimental as it might seem.

            A conventional car can't recapture this energy - but a hybrid can, which is why hybrids tend to get better mileage in th

        • Re:Net energy? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by ikkonoishi (674762) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:10AM (#41704459) Journal

          Batteries are heavy, expensive, and wear out. This would be much better even at less efficiency.

        • Re:Net energy? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Hentes (2461350) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:18AM (#41704557)

          True, but you can't use batteries for everything. Airliners won't fly on batteries, for example.

      • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Simon Brooke (45012) <stillyet@googlemail.com> on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:01AM (#41704337) Homepage Journal

        What matters is that they take energy and store it in a convenient, portable form. We have many millions of machines which run on petrol, and replacing all those machines with equivalents which run on batteries would require a huge consumption of energy. So there's merit in keeping them going.

        Also, this process can take energy for example in periods of strong wind when there's a surplus of 'green' energy, and store it for periods of calm. My home is entirely wind-powered and consequently I have a huge bank of lead-acid batteries as energy storage for calm weather - they aren't very efficient, but they do what's needed. If this 'air (plus electricity) to fuel' process is at least as efficient as a lead acid battery, it's a win.

        • by avandesande (143899) on Friday October 19, 2012 @10:31AM (#41705581) Journal
          I would be more impressed if they made something useful like gasoline, instead of this petrol stuff!
        • Fossil fuels in the last century reached their extreme prices because of their inherent utility; they pack a great deal of potential energy into an extremely efficient package. If we can but side-step the 100 million year production process...

          - CEO Nwabudike Morgan

          To think, in 1999 when the game came out, this was predicted to be a tech we wouldn't see for at least another century and a half. Not quite 14 years later, we're already researching it and making serious progress!

          Of course, there's the last part of that quote which I left off:

          ... we can corner this market once again!

          Hopefully not. I'd really like to see this become a widespread technology. If we (for all values of "we", not just the US where I happen to live) can eliminate both the need for foreign oil and for domestic drilling, that will be two

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by MisterPoo (2756337)

        does that really matter if they are going to power it using renewable energy?

        Sounds like a great way to make clean energy more dirty! Energy loss does matter.

      • by jonbryce (703250)

        Yes, because if you have a source of renewable electricity, it is better to use it as electricity to cut down the amount of fossil generated electricity.

      • Re:Net energy? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Solandri (704621) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:22AM (#41704609)
        Given that nobody (except Iceland) is at 100% renewable energy, yes it does matter. Say you consume 100 TWh a year. Say 25 TWh of that comes from renewables, the rest from fossil fuels (ignore nuclear to keep this simple). Say petrol (gasoline) accounts for 10 TWh of your energy use. And say this process requires 2x as much energy as it creates in petrol.

        If you create all your petrol using renewables to power this process, then you're reducing your fossil fuel consumption by 10 TWh, but increasing your renewable consumption by 20 TWh. However, you only have 25 TWh of installed renewables capacity. So the 20 TWh of renewables this process consumes displaces 20 TWh of other consumption which used to come from renewables. To make up for that shortfall, you have to burn 20 TWh more fossil fuels.

        That is, your renewables consumption remained at 25 TWh. Your fossil fuel first went down by 10 TWh, but then increased by 20 TWh. So powering this process with renewables resulted in a net 10 TWh increase in the consumption of fossil fuels.

        Don't make the mistake of mixing up consumption with production. You cannot pick and choose where your power comes from. If your renewables production is static and less than 100%, then nothing you do on the consumption side matters. Once you exceed that static amount of renewables production capacity, every new power drain you add comes entirely from fossil fuels.
        • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by TheCRAIGGERS (909877) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:45AM (#41704907)

          Given that nobody (except Iceland) is at 100% renewable energy, yes it does matter. Say you consume 100 TWh a year. Say 25 TWh of that comes from renewables, the rest from fossil fuels (ignore nuclear to keep this simple). Say petrol (gasoline) accounts for 10 TWh of your energy use. And say this process requires 2x as much energy as it creates in petrol.

          If you create all your petrol using renewables to power this process, then you're reducing your fossil fuel consumption by 10 TWh, but increasing your renewable consumption by 20 TWh. However, you only have 25 TWh of installed renewables capacity. So the 20 TWh of renewables this process consumes displaces 20 TWh of other consumption which used to come from renewables. To make up for that shortfall, you have to burn 20 TWh more fossil fuels.

          You might have a point, but it's entirely impossible to tell because the numbers are pulled directly from your ass. (No offense.)
           

          You cannot pick and choose where your power comes from. If your renewables production is static and less than 100%, then nothing you do on the consumption side matters. Once you exceed that static amount of renewables production capacity, every new power drain you add comes entirely from fossil fuels.

          I believe you are incorrect. Ask anybody who has successfully moved their house off the grid if they can pick and choose where their power comes from. Yes, if you have your big Air-to-Petrol plant hooked directly up to the grid, you can't choose. But there are plenty of other viable methods, and when you don't have a constant need for reliable power (like say a factory or even a house does) you can easily get away with a wind/solar farm powering your plant. This is even more true when you're in the business of converting excess energy into something transportable and easily stored.

    • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:01AM (#41704333)

      Absolutely. But the key point here is not how much energy it takes to create a litre of petrol, or other hydrocarbon. It's that that energy can come from a static source - solar power, wind power, hydro, anything that can generate electricity but which is too difficult to put into a compact form - and turn it into an energy dense substance that we already know how to deal with. It turns hydrocarbons from an energy source into an energy storage mechanism.

      So we could, hypothetically speaking, stick some massive solar farms in the middle of the Sahara, Death Valley, the Australian outback, and produce the world's petroleum needs by extracting the carbon and hydrogen from the atmosphere. The petroleum gets burnt; the carbon and hydrogen go back into the atmosphere as water and carbon dioxide, and the process starts again. No net change to the world's atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

      We are a long way from that goal, but this puts us a significant step forward toward that end goal.

    • by Skal Tura (595728)

      Doesn't matter really, because for wind farms, solar etc. this is way better store of energy than batteries.

      1) Build a huge ass solar plant in desert
      2) Have these turn it all into gasoline
      3) Haul the gasoline on cheapest energy consumption method to everywhere in the world
      4) PROFIT

      OR

      Have an existing wind farm/solar plant but it produces more at times than can be consumed nearby. Use these to turn the excess into gasoline. When there is no wind or sun shine burn the gasoline to supply the baseline, all exces

      • Build a huge-assed jojoba farm in the desert. It produces hydrocarbon oils from solar power and the best part is the equipment is self-assembling and self-replicating.

        The one thing we're going to need in any of these endeavours is scale, and nothing does scale like biology. We just need to devote our attention to giving it enough help.

        The problem being that gardening isn't sexy new technology that you can print headlines about and make profits from patenting.

    • by Terrasque (796014)

      By and large, the only skill the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork had discovered so far was the ability to turn gold into less gold.

      -- Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures

    • However the technology could draw it's energy from Offshore Wind Farms [greenporthull.co.uk], which often stand idle because wind doesn't coincide with peak demand; this is potentially real winner.

    • Re:Net energy? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by tragedy (27079) on Friday October 19, 2012 @10:19AM (#41705419)

      I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this consumes far more energy than it "creates".

      How is this insightful? This is an energy _storage_ system, not an energy generation system. The point is that it creates fuel that works in all kinds of legacy equipment like gasoline cars. Since all the material it uses can come from the atmosphere, the eventual burning of the fuel it creates is carbon-neutral. Since it can be created in situ anywhere using electricity, the infrastructure that transports petroleum around can go away, reducing the number of spills. Same for drilling accidents and spills. We still have to wait and see how efficient this can be in large scale production, of course, but mis-characterizing what this represents isn't helpful.

  • ...net energy gain -200%

    • by SirGarlon (845873) on Friday October 19, 2012 @08:57AM (#41704293)
      Yes, this does sound like snake oil from a thermodynamic point of view. But don't you think it is at least worth tinkering around with the technology? Extracting CO2 from ambient air is probably not efficient enough, but if one were to get the CO2 from a concentrated source like the smokestack of a coal-burning power plant, and if, as TFA says,

      the company believes it will eventually be possible to use power from renewable sources such as wind farms or tidal barrages [to synthesize the fuel]

      might there not be something of value 20-30 years down the road?

      • by SJHillman (1966756) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:06AM (#41704403)

        For a fledging technology, it's a good start. Seeing as portable energy will always be less efficient than the grid powered by huge power plants, it's a fair trade. You expend energy in order to turn it into a portable state. Sort of like how rechargeable batteries take more energy to charge than they provide to the device that uses them.

  • Oil imports (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Circlotron (764156)
    Not having to import oil from middle eastern countries would be a worthy goal.
    • Re:Oil imports (Score:4, Insightful)

      by kilfarsnar (561956) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:33AM (#41704753)

      Not having to import oil from middle eastern countries would be a worthy goal.

      Agreed. Not starting wars to ensure our premiere access to that oil would be another.

  • by miknix (1047580) on Friday October 19, 2012 @08:55AM (#41704275) Homepage

    Exclusive: Pioneering scientists turn fresh air into petrol in massive boost in fight against energy crisis

    Since this process absorbs and converts CO2 which is one of the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect, if they use a renewable energy source to power the process, I'd say this is a good fight against global warming and not against the energy crisis.

  • Pointless... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by captainpanic (1173915)

    From an energetic point of view, this is utterly pointless. They use electricity which was produced at 40% efficiency from fossil sources, to turn the same CO2 which came from those fossil fuels back into a fuel at much lower than 100% efficiency.

    To go from coal to a fuel, there are processes such a the Fischer tropsch process, as used in South Africa on industrial scale, which are far more efficient.

    If you want to use sustainable electricity to produce a fuel, for heaven's sake, just make hydrogen, and be

    • by Cyno01 (573917) <Cyno01@hotmail.com> on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:09AM (#41704439) Homepage

      Thats why we use gasoline. While hydrogen does have a higher specific energy, Octane and other hydrocarbons of similar lengths have some of the highest energy densities of any readily available compounds. Hydrogen has a specific energy of about 142 megajoules per kilogram, while gasoline has about 48mj/kg. BUT, a kilogram of gasoline is about 1.4 liters, and a kilogram of liquid hydrogen is a little over 14 liters. so not only would you need a fuel tank nearly four times the size for a car of similar range (and thats assuming hydrogen would be as efficient as an internal combustion engine), but hydrogen is only liquid at 20 degrees kelvin, or about 250 degrees below zero. Maintaining that low a temperature requires even more energy.

    • by Tapewolf (1639955)

      From an energetic point of view, this is utterly pointless.

      Yes, but it would be nice to be able to make plastics and lubricants without oil.

  • by Assmasher (456699) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:00AM (#41704331) Journal

    ...imagine using energy that cannot be used for internal combustion being used to produce petrol?

    This could be a great help during civilization's crossover from hydrocarbon energy to wind/solar/fusion.

  • by sbditto85 (879153) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:03AM (#41704355) Homepage
    You were wrong dad, you were wrong.
  • Thermodynamics says that's going to be some very, very expensive fuel. But more immediately, doesn't this sound like the green version of the lead-into-silver scams of the 1700s? If they say they need a canal built: run.
  • by Overzeetop (214511) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:06AM (#41704405) Journal

    Unless your entire supply chain is renewable, this isn't even good for renewable (regardless of the efficiency). Here's why:

    Currently, all of our renewable energy requires that we build ways to harvest that energy. That's done by mining and manufacturing which generally runs on non-renewable resources. For example: on a small scale, PV solar costs about 12.5c per kWh, amortized at 0% over the life of the panel (0% is the the most conservative number, at 5%, it's closer to 25-30c). Since solar panels take (effetively) 12.5c/kWh worth of energy to create, and that's mostly from fossil fuels, we're essentially burning non-renewables in order to create a solar collection system which manufactures fossil fuels.

    As things get better, this may change, but for the time being this it the "green" equivalent of money laundering.

    • by Jesus_666 (702802)
      Your argument is mainly about PV being unfeasible as an energy source, barring major improvements in PV cell efficiency. There are different sources, however (eg. offshore wind, tidal, solar thermic), that might work better. What about using gasoline generation for off-peak energy storage? What about using it for plastics production instead of energy storage?

      Of course this isn't the answer to the energy crisis but it does help with one aspect - oil being finite.
  • by rossdee (243626) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:09AM (#41704437)

    Wouldn't it be more efficient to turn thick air into petrol
    specifically the CO2 exhaust of a fossil fuel power plant)

    BTW has someone asked Romney if he supports the repeal of the Laws of Thermodynamics

  • by Dr_Barnowl (709838) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:13AM (#41704499)

    A quote from a professor comparing the retail price of a CD when they were invented, to the stamping cost of a CD today, in order to illustrate improvements in efficiency in a physical process.

    One is something that someone made up because they thought it was what people would swallow. Rather like the claims in this article that this is an important technology for the energy crisis.

    It's a useful excuse to delay research into electric vehicles and prolong the fossil fuel economy.

  • by Wdi (142463) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:14AM (#41704519)

    This smells fishy. Certainly, there are no laws of nature violated... carbon dioxide can be hydrogenated to hydrocarbons, alcohols, etc., that is well-known technology ...but why would anybody trying to build a commercial company presumably trying to earn money at some stage go to the expense (both financially and energy-wise) to isolate carbon dioxide from air (0.04%), when it is readly available for example from the exhaust of tradional power plants and other fuel-burning processes (>22%, up to 100% with 'clean coal' tech), or, if you want to go fully biological, from fermentation operations (100%). That does not make any economic sense at all.

    Also, the point about the lack additives is strange. Original refinery fuel is almost pure hydrocarbons and minor oxidation products, too - the additives are not a side product of the distillation process from oil. The addititives are added (immediately before filling the delivery trucks) because they improve the burn characteristics, lubrication, waste product accumulation - which are needed for synfuel in the same fashion.

  • by Urban Garlic (447282) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:29AM (#41704691)

    So TFA doesn't say, but I wonder if this is includes the same "Sabatier reaction" that's part of Robert Zubrin's "Mars Direct" plan -- in the Zubrin case, you send a nuclear reactor and some hydrogen to mars, and use that plus martian CO2 and a catalyst to make methane and oxygen, which become the basis for bootstrapping your martian chemical industry.

    Obviously, these guys have more dilute CO2, and their other reactant is H20, not H2, but it seems likely to be closely related.

  • by crow (16139) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:47AM (#41704949) Homepage Journal

    I seem to recall that DARPA was looking for a way to do just this. The idea is to put a small nuclear reactor at a forward operating base (such as in Afghanistan), and use the excess electricity to provide for the fuel needs. One of the most expensive and dangerous parts of operations is trucking in the fuel, so making it on-site, even if the efficiency is bad, can still be a huge win.

    An article on the request for proposals mentioned that nuclear reactors don't adjust quickly to demand, so there's lots of excess power in places like France, so there's interest in something like this to use the excess power. Of course, now you're getting into a situation where efficiency matters, as you can sell the electricity outside the country at a loss or use other methods of storing it for later.

  • by Thelasko (1196535) on Friday October 19, 2012 @09:57AM (#41705077) Journal
    The U.S. Navy is doing similar research creating jet fuel from sea water. [gizmag.com] This would allow aircraft carriers to stay on location longer because they wouldn't have to worry about running out of fuel for aircraft. Basically the only things that would need to be delivered would be supplies for the crew (food, toilet paper, etc.).
  • by Yarhj (1305397) on Friday October 19, 2012 @10:01AM (#41705139)
    It sounds like we've got a case of

    *puts glasses on*

    vaporware.

    YEEEAAAAAAAHH!
  • Not so fast (Score:5, Informative)

    by rhadamanthus (200665) on Friday October 19, 2012 @10:05AM (#41705203)

    Buried at the bottom of the article is this tidbit:

    "Although the prototype system is designed to extract carbon dioxide from the air, this part of the process is still too inefficient to allow a commercial-scale operation.

    The company can and has used carbon dioxide extracted from air to make petrol, but it is also using industrial sources of carbon dioxide until it is able to improve the performance of "carbon capture"."

  • by ebrandsberg (75344) on Friday October 19, 2012 @10:48AM (#41705837)

    Consider Iceland, which has a great source of cheap renewable electricity with Geothermal power. The issue is them finding good uses for it--you can only smelt so much aluminum before the price goes down. This process would be ideal, as this process would let them create carbon neutral fuel. Other areas have good sources of Geothermal power as well, but often, they are too far from where the power is needed to make them useful in exploiting.

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