Gas From Thin Air

Picture a magic show: The magician preforms a few tricks and sleight-of hand illusions, making it appear as though he can summon objects from thin air. What if answers to our energy needs could be pulled out of the air, as well? A number of scientists, engineers, physicists, and businesses are researching just that: an answer to energy needs and a way to address pollution, taken from thin air. These breakthroughs may be able to reduce the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide while also producing the gasoline necessary to feed the U.S.’s (and the world’s) thirst for fuels.

When traditional gasoline is burned, some of the molecules within it, called hydrocarbons, are broken down and combined with oxygen to produce water vapor and carbon dioxide. These gasses then rise into the atmosphere. Currently, there are several processes which can convert carbon dioxide into a usable fuel.

Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company founded by Harvard Professor of Applied Physics David Keith, has begun generating a carbon-neutral fuel that is compatible with today’s combustion engines. He states, “This isn’t going to save the world from the impacts of climate change, but it’s going to be a big step on the path to a low-carbon economy.” The idea itself isn’t new, but the company is able to produce this fuel at a potentially cost-competitive rate which could make it the next addition to gas stations nation-wide.

The company utilizes equipment to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combines that CO2 with hydrogen atoms. Using a process called electrolysis, which is very electricity intensive (this electricity is currently produced using hydropower), water molecules are split, freeing up hydrogen atoms for use in fuel generation. After the hydrogen and CO2 are combined, the resulting hydrocarbons are ready for use.

The company’s next step is to increase production. If it can expand and create multiple, larger plants, the company will be able to produce more fuel to drive costs down and meet demand. The goal with this expansion is to ramp up production and become more competitive.

Researchers at the University of Southern California have discovered another alternative. Their process, spearheaded by G.K. Surya Prakash and Nobel Laureate Professor George A. Olah, involved forcing air through a carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen solution called pentaethylenehexamine. By utilizing a ruthenium catalyst, the reaction was more effective and occurred at a lower heat, converting 79 percent of the CO2 into methanol. With a lower required heat and a higher conversion rate, this will make the process more easily adaptable – although, industrialization of this technology is still a few years away.

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