A team of British engineers says they’ve done the impressive, the incredible, the impossible: They’ve come up with a way to convert fresh air into gasoline. It sounds too good to be true, and in a couple of regards, it is. Using a system that they call “air capture” technology, the eggheads at Air Fuel Synthesis presented their research at a London engineering conference this week, where experts hailed the breakthrough as a “game changer” in the quest for renewable energy and the fight against global warming. Again, don’t get too excited all at once, there are still a few issues to work out.
So, how’s it work? Pulling gasoline out of fresh air is indeed a pretty accurate way of describing what Air Fuel Synthesis does. The main thrust of the process involves pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That carbon dioxide is then mixed with sodium hydroxide, which produces sodium carbonate, which the engineers electrolyse in order to produce pure carbon dioxide. They then mix that compound with pure hydrogen that they pull from water vapor — gasoline, after all, is a combination of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms — in order to produce methanol. Once put through something called a “gasoline fuel reactor,” the solution becomes pure, synthetic gasoline, ready to burn. Oh yeah, forgot to mention, it burns clean, too.
Now, I’m not a chemist or anything, but that sounds like pure magic. And not necessarily in a good way. First of all, it sounds like pure magic, almost like a strange sideshow at a David Copperfield performance. However, the technology does have the support of Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers and nearly $2 million in funding from anonymous philanthropists who want to save the world with clean energy. In fact, the institution’s officials said that the process was “truly groundbreaking … too good to be true but it is true.” Not having seen a video of the process producing fuel or of the synthetic gasoline powering an automobile, we’ll have to give them the benefit of the doubt that this process does indeed work.
Second, if it’s so simple to turn air and water into a combustible liquid that can power all of our machines without producing a bunch of dreadful greenhouse gases, why haven’t we been doing this for years?! There are a couple of reasons. Number one, we have to take the engineers’ word when they say that this really is a breakthrough, a totally new process that nobody’s figured out before. Crazier breakthroughs have happened. Also, like a lot of awesome new things, this process is very expensive and time-consuming. The team says they they’ve produced five liters of this magic gas over the course of the past three months at a small refinery in England’s far north. In the next 15 years, they hope to have streamlined the process enough to operate a big refinery capable of producing a ton of this stuff every day. The key to making that process efficient is coming up with a better way to capture carbon dioxide from the air, which is currently not considered commercially valuable at a cost of around $600 per ton. That challenge sounds easy compared to converting fresh air into gasoline, though.
Regardless of the challenges, these engineers seems truly excited about this new process and optimistic about its chance of covering some of our energy needs. And like Professor Klaus Lackner of Columbia University pointed out in an interview with London’s Independent, technology is always difficult and expensive at first. “I bought my first CD in the 1980s and it cost $20 but now you can make one for less than 10 cents,” he said. “The cost of a light bulb has fallen 7,000-fold during the past century.” So we’re not supposed to be skeptical about the new air-to-gas miracle, because people were once skeptical about the CD? Whatever you say, professor. Please upload YouTube proof, pronto.