“Air capture technology ultimately has the potential to become a game-changer in our quest to avoid dangerous climate change.”
-Dr. Tim Fox, head of energy and environment with Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Last week, The Telegraph reported an interesting story about a company from the northern England. This British firm is able to make gasoline using nothing but air, electricity, and something known as “air capture” technology.
The name of the company is Air Fuel Synthesis and they explained the process in detail at a London engineering conference last week. They take carbon dioxide and water vapour from the air, add sodium carbonate and then electrolyse it so that they’re left with carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Those two products can then be combined to produce methanol which can ultimately be put through a fuel reactor to generate good old-fashioned gasoline.
The new process isn’t just fantasy; it actually works . They’ve been able to produce five litres of gasoline in less than three months so far. Obviously that’s not even enough to fill one tank of gas, but it’s a start. Their hope is to scale up the process so that within the next two years, they’ll be able to crank out a tonne of gasoline every day.
Obviously It would be nice if we were able to extract carbon dioxide from the air to generate the carbon-containing fuel scources we burn as for our energy sources rather than constantly adding more by continuing to burn the fossil fuels we get from the ground. If this process could work on an industrial scale, it would be part of its own little carbon cycle.
So what are the hurdles that must be overcome? Well, there’s the issue of developing the technology to the point where gasoline can be mass-produced—two years may be a stretch when it’s taken three months to produce five litres—and the costs that will be associated may not be economically competitive. The other major hurdle is that the energy source used in the process is electricity. Unless that electricity comes from green carbon-neutral sources, then it’s simply a matter of swapping one fossil fuel for another. Since so much of the world uses coal to generate its electricity, the technology that Air Fuel Synthesis proposes won’t be a viable solution to our planet’s plight unless the electricity used is green.
I expect this will take longer than two years before it’s ready for prime time. But while we’re waiting for such technology to be developed, our planet will gradually increase its generation of electricity from renewable sources such as hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal. Nuclear energy is also a viable alternative to coal for the generation of electricity if we need it, especially during the crucial transition phase.
Nearly two million dollars has been invested in developing this technology so far, donated by a group of anonymous individuals who believe in green energy.
Pie-in-the-sky thinking? Perhaps. But this is the kind of innovation we need to explore. If our planet is addicted to fossil fuels, it would still be better if we could harness the sun’s energy to generate them rather than dig out ever-increasingly difficult sources buried deep inside our planet. This may prove to be one wedge in the overall solution to solving the climate crisis, and I applaud these engineers for getting this far in their project.