In what sounds more like alchemy than science, a small British company has figured out a way to create gasoline from air and water. To do so, engineers at Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS) produced five litres (1.3 gallons) of the fuel by extracting carbon dioxide from air, and hydrogen from water, which was then combined in a reactor with a catalyst to create methanol. This methanol was then converted into gasoline.
The entire chemical process to create this synthetic hydrocarbon liquid took three months, and is part of a $1.6 million dollar project to create a sustainable and environmentally friendly fuel. And because renewable energy was used to power the process, the scientists say it may be possible to create carbon-neutral fuel en masse that can be used like regular gasoline.
And in fact, the company predicts that it will be able to build a larger, commercial-scale plant capable of producing a ton of gas a day (about 1,200 litres (317 gallons) per day). They're also hoping to produce green aviation fuel to make airline travel more carbon-neutral.
Conceptually, the process can be understood as a kind of combustion in reverse. Essentially, it is not unlike what plants do — organisms that convert CO2 and water into energy-rich sugar molecules.
According to the Independent, the newspaper publication that broke the story, the company appears to be legit — as is their breakthrough:
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."
The prototype system is still too small-scale and inefficient to allow for a commercial-scale version, but further research and refinement could change the situation. And there's plenty of incentive to see it work — not just from the sale of a new synthetic fuel, but for environmental reasons as well. The company is hoping to extract CO2 from the atmosphere with carbon capture technologies. Until that time, however, it will have to rely on industrial sources of carbon dioxide.
Image: ilker canikligil/shutterstock.com. Inset image via Independent.