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UK engineers demonstrate ability to create petrol from air

16 October 2012

Air capture technology, which scrubs carbon dioxide from the air, has the potential to become a ‘game-changer’ in the battle against climate change, and British engineers are at the forefront.

The technology will be the subject of a conference – the first of its kind – to be held at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers' London headquarters today (Tuesday 16 October).

Development of the technology has accelerated over the past few years, and one small British firm has become the first company in the world to demonstrate CO2 air capture as a viable industrial prospect. Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS), based in Stockton-on-Tees, is using air capture to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

AFS recently created its first litres of fuel at the company’s Stockton demonstrator plant. The process works as follows:

Air is blown into a tower containing a mist of sodium hydroxide which reacts with the carbon dioxide in the air, forming sodium carbonate. Electricity is then passed through the sodium carbonate to release the carbon dioxide, which is stored.

A dehumidifier in the tower condenses water from the air. The water is then split into hydrogen and oxygen using an electric current.

The carbon dioxide and hydrogen are reacted together to create Syngas, which is then processed to form methanol. The methanol is passed through a gasoline fuel reactor, creating petrol.

The fuel produced can be used in any regular petrol tank and, if renewable energy is used to provide the electricity, the process and end product are completely carbon neutral.

This clean fuel is a direct drop-in replacement fuel for existing vehicles and infrastructure. It can also be used to store intermittent ‘wrong-time’ or stranded ‘wrong-place’ energy from renewable sources and has many advantages over biofuels when blended with conventional petrol – a feature that has already attracted the attention of the motorsport industry. 

David Still, Chairman of Air Fuel Synthesis, said his company is now ready to build the first commercial plant. "The technology can add to new or existing renewable energy projects, especially where the energy is stranded, where  there is  a premium for secure liquid  fuels for existing vehicles or for reducing carbon emissions," he said.

"Demand for specialist high quality low-carbon fuels in motorsports offers a particularly attractive early niche market for investors. Further investors and partners will enable us to rapidly commercialise our technologies  and help customers address  fossil oil price volatility and supply constraints as well as the implications of carbon-driven climate change.“

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