Researchers in the UK and US are working on new techniques to create fuels like methanol, diesel and even petrol from the atmosphere around us - the key component being used is CO2. Bloomberg has a light overview video of the work being done by a UK company called Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS). The process involves pulling in air and extracting the CO2 component (.04% of our atmosphere and rising). The CO2 gets combined with hydrogen and a catalyst to make a simple hydrocarbon– and from there can be converted to any number of fuels that are useable in vehicles. The researchers note that the process is inefficient (read costly) at this point, though efficiency may increase when scaled up to an industrial-sized refinery.
UK based AFS is not the only group looking at generating useable fuel from CO2. Researchers at at a US company called Liquid Light, have discovered a method to combine CO2 with formic acid to create isobutanol, a fuel that could be used in car engines and generators. Separate research has shown that the formic acid component can also be created directly from CO2 through a new method using a solar panel and the raw CO2 gas.
What does it mean for Cleanleap countries?
Transport of diesel fuel for generators in remote communities is a large component of the price of energy there. Could these systems allow for onsite creation of fuel?
AFS claims that its process is "near carbon neutral" - of course burning methanol or synthetic diesel would release CO2, but the math on neutrality would take into account the CO2 that's extracted from the air.
CO2's relative scarcity in the atmosphere (.04%) may require these new processes to expend a significant amount of energy to obtain enough CO2 for its use as a viable fuel. As CO2 is often a waste product from industrial sources like cement factories and power plants (that's what CCS is about), would that make a more viable and cheaper source of CO2 than extracting it from the air? I've put these questions to AFS and the researchers at Liquid Light. I'll update this article with their responses.
Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Liquid Light's research was carried out in association with UCLA. This is not the case, however UCLA is conducting similar independent research.