Almost Free Gasoline: Sort of, Maybe
A British company called Air Fuel Systems is working on a process to use the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to make gasoline. The process funnels the carbon dioxide in the air through a two-stage process that results in the creation of methanol which can then be converted to gasoline or virtually any other hydrocarbon based fuel type.
The process is similar to that used by Germans during World War II and South Africa’s Sasol Ltd. (NYSE: SSL) to make motor fuel from coal. Coal, after all, is mainly carbon. Air Fuel Systems bypasses coal and uses air as the carbon source.
There’s no theoretical reason why the air-to-gasoline process can’t work. The problem arises when the process encounters the second law of thermodynamics. That’s the one that says for all the energy the goes into a system, whatever energy comes out will have to be less. In this case, the amount of energy that is needed to convert air to gasoline is likely far to exceed the amount of energy available in the produced fuel.
Of course, how Air Fuel Systems produces the energy needed for the conversion is critical. Using free energy from either solar- or wind-generated electricity could make the conversion process economical. Even very cheap coal might be economical.
Air Fuel Systems is currently running a demonstration unit that makes about 5 liters of liquid hydrocarbon fuel every day. The company wants to build a plant to make about 1,200 liters per day of the fuel and has even commissioned engineering design work on building a refinery-scale plant.
This is not an investment for the faint of heart.