Gwynne Dyer: As oil prices rise, so will the desire for energy independence

Stockton-on-Tees, a small city in northeastern England, has only one claim to fame: the first railway tracks were made and laid in the city in 1822, and the first-ever train ran on those tracks in 1825. But it might one day have another claim, also related to transportation: a locally based start-up company called Air Fuel Synthesis has just produced the first gasoline from air and water.

It isn’t a lot of gas—five litres in two months—but Peter Harrison, the company’s chief executive, hopes that within two years they will build a larger plant producing a tonne a day. He envisages refinery-scale operations within 15 years.

“We’ve taken carbon dioxide from air and hydrogen from water and turned these elements into petrol,” Harrison told a conference at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London. Since the carbon dioxide that goes into the air when this fuel is burned exactly equals the amount that was taken out of the air when it was fabricated, it is a carbon-neutral fuel. Provided, of course, that the electricity used in the process comes from renewable sources.

No wonder that people who worry about global warming are excited about this breakthrough— but they should get excited slowly. The question was never if you could create a complex hydrocarbon like petrol from just air and water, but how much it costs to do it, compared to just pumping oil out of the ground and refining it.

The answer in the past has been: far too much. Splitting water molecules to get hydrogen is expensive in terms of the electricity required. Carbon dioxide is easily available as the by-product of burning coal or oil, but using that CO2 as the feedstock for artificial gasoline only postpones the moment when it gets into the atmosphere by a few days or weeks.

If you want a truly carbon-neutral fuel, then the carbon dioxide you use must come straight from the air. Prototype machines have been built (by Klaus Lackner of Columbia University and David Keith of the University of Calgary) that can extract CO2 from the air in industrial quantities, but the price per tonne at the moment is about $600.

That’s far too much, but as Lackner points out, the cost of any new technology plunges steeply once it goes into volume production. And the cost of getting hydrogen from water may also drop dramatically. Daniel Nocera of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a catalyst made from cobalt and phosphorus that can split water at room temperature.

“I'm using cheap, Earth-abundant materials that you can mass-manufacture,” Nocera said in 2008. “As long as you can charge the surface, you can create the catalyst, and it doesn't get any cheaper than that.” So if the hydrogen is cheap, and the cost of extracting carbon dioxide from the air also falls dramatically, how much would it cost to combine them into gasoline?

That’s what Air Fuel Synthesis is working on: an integrated, scalable industrial process that takes carbon dioxide from the air and hydrogen from water, combines them into methanol, and then turns that into gas.

Peter Harrison is cagey about his current production cost per litre: at the “proof-of-principle” stage, everything costs a fortune. But as he told The Independent in a recent interview, “You’re in a marketplace where the only way is up for the price of fossil fuel. At some point there will be a crossover where our fuel becomes cheaper.”

David Keith sees it the same way. “You’re selling this fuel, and they’re burning it, putting carbon in the air, but then you’re recapturing the same amount of carbon and selling it to them again. That’s a business model that could conceivably take a whack at the global transportation market, which is the hardest part of the climate problem to attack.”

Maybe Harrison’s process will not win the race to capture that market. Maybe the cheaper option will be to grow green algae in waste water or salt water, crush it to extract the oil from it, and then refine the oil into petrol, diesel and so on. (Exxon-Mobil is currently spending about $100 million a year to develop that process.) But one way or another, the gasoline we put in our vehicles in 25 years’ time will probably not come out of the ground.

An entire industry employing millions of people, and the national budgets of entire countries, and much of the military planning by the world’s great powers, all rest on the assumption that this will never happen. Of course it will. The pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions will grow as the temperature rises, and the desire for “energy independence” will only get stronger as oil price rises.

Back in the 1890s, it was still unclear whether the new “horseless carriages” would ultimately be powered mainly by gas, steam, or electricity. But it was already clear to those with any understanding of the interactions between markets and technology that the day of the horse-and-buggy was over, and the smart money was already getting out of buggy whips.

Comments (12) Add New Comment
petr aardvark
here's another one, using carbon monoxide to make syngas..
http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/01/S2P

when you consider that the cost of a barrel of oil has increased 5 fold in the last decade
from 20$ to around $100 per barrel, despite the global downturn for the last 4 years, the cost of oil is the biggest hindrance to world economic growth. (see End of Growth - Jeffrey Rubin). So it is no wonder that there is a lot of research to come up with alternatives. So in that sense, it is a good thing if energy prices remain high as it makes the development of alternatives. (I recommend Amory Lovins recent talk on TED on the direction of energy for the next 50 years)
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dru
"But one way or another, the gasoline we put in our vehicles in 25 years’ time will probably not come out of the ground. " That's exactly it.

Even though most of alternative energy technology is in its infacy today, a conglomeration of high oil prices, dwindling? oil supplies and climate change gives us incentive to seek efficient, clean, energy, that can be mass-produced.
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Sean
In olden days, oil for lamps was obtained from whale fat, which today is remembered as an unfortunate and rather barbaric practice. In the future, people will look back at the idea of burning the derivatives of smelly, dirty, black goop from the ground with the same disdain.
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someone
If improved battery and solar technology hasn't made burning gasoline for vehicles at a consumer level completely obsolete in 25 years, I'll have to start seriously thinking about buying a tinfoil hat.
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Step Back
Interesting article. Ive heard about this oil from air idea but didn't know the process. It was to bad you didnt manage to extract a price per liter, but from what I've read the price on an industrial level would likely cost about $5/L. Add to this separating H form H2O takes a lot of electricity. At a time where our power plants are stretched to the max it's not really a good time to add this drain to our grid. I see this as a go no where idea.
That said I look forward to an algae oil article.
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Sceptic
Buggy whips were made obsolete by the exploitation of a one-off resource of fossil energy. Over half the easily-recovered oil is gone, as is most high quality coal and a good deal of gas. It's not an issue of price, it's a question of net availability of energy, which is falling and will continue to fall. As it falls, so will affordability. One can come up with as many slick, expensive, manufactured liquid fuels as one likes but millions of people will turn their backs on cars in the coming decades because they they won't be able to afford either the vehicles or the fuel (if they want to eat). Of course there will be some cars powered by electricity or various forms of synfuel in 40 years time but unless you plan to be among the 1% by then (or a chauffeur) you are very much mistaken if you believe that you will be driving one.
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Mosby
The ultimate limiting factor is not price, it's energy. Specifically, Energy-Returned-On-Energy-Invested (EROEI). If the energy required to extract carbon from air is the same or more than the energy contained in the extracted carbon, there's no point in proceeding. (If it takes a barrel's worth of oil to extract a barrel of oil, why bother?).
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Ernest Payne
With the amount of energy needed to extract oil rapidly approaching the amount of energy extracted this is good news for energy hungry countries. Unfortunately (or more likely not) it is going to restrict vehicle use to those that can afford the much higher cost.
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petr aardvark
If oil gets more expensive, there will be alternatives that become more affordable..

such as Joule technologies, or Cool Planet Energy systems in California that can make gasoline from switchgrass for 56cents a littre. Or for that matter consider the UBC engineering students that converted a 72 beetle to electric for about $25,000 and off the shelf parts - and drove across Canada a couple years ago. The trip took about 12 days including waiting for hurricane Earl and a couple days for some parts. They were able to recharge at campgrounds and RV parks - often for less than an hour for a partial charge and of course overnight as well. The cost of electricity for the 6500 km trip was $65 or $1 per 100km. I'd say thats a good deal cheaper than it would cost in gasoline.
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Lee L.
"Even though most of alternative energy technology is in its infacy today, a conglomeration of high oil prices, dwindling? oil supplies and climate change gives us incentive to seek efficient, clean, energy, that can be mass-produced"

25 years from now, there will still be oil coming out of the ground in quantity. And if it gets too pricey, we will use natural gas to run our vehicles. One thing for sure, photovoltaics and windmills blighting every ridgeline aint gonna cut it.

In time, the engineering problems of nuclear fusion will have been solved and then energy will no longer be an issue. There will be plenty of power to make hydrogen for vehicles and for transforming atmospheric gases like CO2 and water back into hydrocarbons.

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petr aardvark
that would be nice, though I remember watching a Nova documentary about nuclear fusion in the late 70s. Fusion is always 50 years in the future.

There are loads of less costly alternatives.
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Bill Desmond
Public education that smaller and more efficient is better would help. And that includes family size- we need to seriously consider limiting population, asap. And the realization that, contrary to the Wall Streeters, exponential growth in a finite environment is not only unsustainable, but ultimately fatal for all. Our energy requirements, use of and over use of is killing the planet, and all species on it- slowly but surely. But if money can be made, we will sell the last tree, the last gallon of water and and the last gasp of air. Sorry to say this, for my grandchildren and theirs, but we are selecting ourselves for extinction- nuclear or otherwise.
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