Air! An alternative to fossil fuels?

Published: 07 Dec 2012

We all know that money doesn’t grow on trees, and it seems equally unlikely that petrol can be made from air, yet that’s what a team of British engineers from a small company in Stockton-On-Tees has done, beating off world-wide competition to perform the trick.

So how has this team from Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS) managed to do this and why haven’t we noticed before that we’re breathing in lungfuls of ‘unleaded’?

Unsurprisingly, it takes a little alchemy to create petrol from thin air, most particularly the application of some air capture technology that grabs CO2 from the atmosphere.

But how does a simple technology, whose roots can be traced back to World War II, succeed in producing what is being called a ‘real, sustainable alternative to fossil fuel’?

This is the process.

First, air is blown through a fine mist of sodium hydroxide held in a tower. The resultant reaction creates sodium carbonate, through which an electric current is passed to release carbon dioxide.

A dehumidifier is then used to condense water from the air that remains in the tower. The water is then split into hydrogen and oxygen, again using an electric current.

The CO2 and hydrogen now react to produce syngas, or synthesis gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which after processing turns into methanol.

Finally, after passing this through a gasoline fuel reactor, you have petrol from air, a fuel that can be used just like any ‘normal’ petrol you get out of a pump.

Not only does the process give you petrol without the environmentally unfriendly aspects that come with sucking oil from underground, but if the energy you use to drive the reactions comes from renewable sources, then you have an end product and a process that are effectively carbon neutral, since you are effectively recycling CO2 and eliminating further transport emissions.

This conjures up the possibility of using ‘wrong-time’, ‘wrong-place’ energy from renewable sources as a means to generate fuel.

The company is now ready to build what would be the first commercial production plant making carbon-neutral petrol. If all goes to plan, they will have the plant up and running in about two years.

While other companies around the world have been working on related technologies, AFS are the first to capture carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into fuel, demonstrating that CO2 air capture can create a viable commercial product.

Although the new fuel can be used by standard road vehicles, initial demand could be highest from the highly lucrative motorsports sector, which is always looking for high quality low-carbon fuels.

However, if technology encourages some heavy duty investment from major investors who are positioning themselves in the green marketplace, as is likely to happen, then petrol from air production could be a potentially massive ‘game changer’ in our global battle against climate change.

If so, it is fitting that a town that was home to the world’s first passenger railway should be the birthplace of another transport revolution.


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