Fuel from Air?

One thing we seem to have in limitless supply is gullibility. You may have seen the story sweeping through the energy circles of the Web:

Federal Lab Says It Can Harvest Fuel From Air

We love the painless technological solution. “This solves Global Warming AND produces carbon neutral fuel!” I talk to people all the time who say, in reference to our energy and environmental problems, “They will figure something out.” So along comes a story like this, and the layman reads the headlines and breathes a sigh of relief. We can make fuel from thin air. This must be even better than cars that run on water or cold fusion.

So what’s the deal? Here is an explanation from the linked article:

In the category of things that sound so good they have to be checked out more thoroughly (so stay tuned) is this news out of Los Alamos National Laboratory:

Scientists there say they have developed a way to produce truly carbon-neutral fuel and useful organic chemicals at large scale using water and carbon dioxide removed from the air as raw materials. There are plenty of schemes brewing to capture carbon dioxide, both directly from the atmosphere and from the stacks of power plants. All of them, for the moment, are costly or hard to envision at the billion-tons-a-year scale that would be needed to blunt the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere coming mainly from fuel burning.

I like to think I check things out thoroughly, and I try to approach things realistically. I consider myself to be a realistic optimist. It has nothing to do with being a naysayer, it is all about understanding basic science and engineering and knowing what’s likely, what isn’t, and what simply violates physical laws. So, is this pie-in-the-sky or a serious candidate for an energy solution?

Let’s take a critical look. First, details are sketchy (aren’t they always?). They are supposed to be released next week:

Details on the Los Alamos approach will come next week when Dr. Martin gives a presentation at a government and industry meeting, Alternative Energy Now, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The conference, held at a resort for military personnel, is sponsored mainly by the U.S. Air Force.

Let’s be perfectly clear. Could you produce fuel out of carbon dioxide and water? Sure you can – with massive energy inputs. You can’t get around the chemistry. When you burn something like natural gas, oil, coal, or just about anything organic – you get carbon dioxide and water. The amount of energy to turn it back into fuel is greater than the energy that was released in the first place. That is a fundamental law of thermodynamics.

As a simple illustrative example, let’s say I burned a quantity of natural gas and it released 10 BTUs per the following reaction: CH4 + 2 O2 = CO2 + 2 H20. Then to reverse that reaction is going to take more than 10 BTUs, and potentially a lot more. So where is this energy going to come from? Why, nuclear reactors of course:

This plan has a minor hurdle, too; the electricity for driving the chemical processes, according to a white paper describing the overarching concept, would come from nuclear power.

That’s more than a minor hurdle. If the fuel takes more energy to produce than it contains – and the laws of chemistry are against you in this case – then you have to ask whether there is a better use of that energy. If (for instance) I take 20 BTUs of nuclear energy to produce 10 BTUs of liquid fuel – was there a better end use for that nuclear energy? How about putting those 20 BTUs into an electric car, which has a much greater efficiency than an internal combustion engine? That is a much better net than the wasteful route of turning it into liquid fuel.

Make no mistake, technical feasibility is certainly there. Likewise, I can technically run a car off of water, or make fuel out of dirt. I could mine Titan for hydrocarbons. I could even build a colony on the moon or at the bottom of the ocean as a “solution” to overpopulation. These are things that one could technically do. That doesn’t mean any of them make sense.

That’s what I would say about this proposal. Unless they have figured out a way to violate the laws of chemistry, there is no free lunch. If you had vast quantities of cheap electricity, then sure, you could do it. But in that case why not just use the electricity directly?

Conclusion: The proponents have gotten way ahead of themselves, and I have yet to see anyone point out the basic fact regarding the energy balance: It will necessarily be a net consumer of energy, not an energy producer.

One other thing:

As described in a news release by Mr. Martin, it sounds like a possible candidate for Richard Branson’s $25 million carbon-capturing prize:

“Our concept enhances U.S. energy and material security by reducing dependence on imported oil. Initial system and economic analyses indicate that the prices of Green Freedom commodities would be either comparable to the current market or competitive with those of other carbon-neutral, alternative technologies currently being considered.”

First, you would be trading dependence on imported oil for dependence on imported uranium. Again, no free lunch. Second, I know someone else who has a much stronger case for Branson’s prize. 😉

29 thoughts on “Fuel from Air?”

  1. This is even worse than Los Alamos’s “Green Freedom” program.

    Anyways, Los Alamos is primarily a Nuclear Power Plant.

    Their agenda is a massive expansion of nuclear power.

  2. We hear this kind of thing all the time. Such thinking leads people to reject conventional energy projects that are better economically and environmentally, but not yet “perfect”.

    I am here to tell you there is no free lunch, no magic energy bullet solution, no energy Easter Bunny that is going to give you what you want if only we tax the evil oil companies into oblivion.

    The truth is we have to conserve, we have to develop conventional resources (including drilling in the 1002 and offshore California) we need to build more nuclear and coal fired power plants to retire aging infrastructure. We need to invest in alternatives understanding they are expensive and unlikely to account for a large percentage of our energy requirements.

    You can’t make energy companies invest in something else or compel their employees to work on alternatives. You can’t tax them into it because at some point they will just pack up and leave.

  3. Wouldn’t this process be a good match for intermittent sources? If you were able to produce liquid fuels at a competitive cost, it wouldn’t matter whether your wind turbine or concentrating-solar-driven Stirling engine was only producing power 6 hours/day, right?

    But I’m guessing this is nowhere near economically viable yet.

  4. I definitely understand the opportunity cost argument. Right now, it makes more sense for a nuclear plant to supply electricity to the grid than to convert CO2 to gasoline.

    However, this idea could become an option if we reach 5+ dollars per gallon in some post-peak oil future. At that point, CO2 to gasoline refineries could make more of a profit selling gasoline than selling electricity. If we really have reached global peak oil, then we could use CO2 to gasoline conversion to keep our economy running without the need for expensive batteries.

    It wouldn’t be a future without conservation. With 5 dollar a gallon gas, we won’t exactly be driving around Navigators and Excursions like 2001. But it won’t have near the economic hit of possible 7, 8, 9 dollars a gallon gas possible after peak oil.

  5. You want to take CO2 out of the air? Grow plants. Then burn the plants in steam engines, and sequester the CO2. Although I fall into the camp of people not convinced about AGW. (it was warmer both 1000 and 6000 years ago).
    I would like to have RR turn his considerable insights not onto these harebrained schemes, but Shell Oil’s serious-sounding technology for shale oil. As an amateur, it sounds to me like they cracked the code. But then, I thought that about E3 also.
    RR: What about Shell Oil’s hot tubes for extracting shale oil? They say they can do it for $30 a barrel. If truye, we have gobs of the stuff….

  6. King of Katy said: “I am here to tell you there is no free lunch, no magic energy bullet solution, no energy Easter Bunny…”


    Someday.. Someday there will be clean fusion reactors providing unlimited energy.

    Can’t tell you when. But someday it will happen.

  7. Hawk –

    Ok there might be an Easter Bunny . . . someday.

    Maybe I should argue that there is no reason to spend tons of money on solar, wind, biofuels etc. – we should instead be throwing money at fusion.

    I’m sure once fusion is going someone is going to write the first post about “peak matter”.

  8. Fat man:
    great link on thorium. Enough for centuries.
    Like I keep saying, there is no energy shortage; only bad government, from Oil Thug States to our own feckless weenies in D.C.
    Fire up the nukes, the wind turbines, the solar plants, the geothermals, convert to PHEVs, and declare victory in Iraq and leave ASAP…..

  9. Gasoline from air sounds like it has merit to me Robert. Even if you don’t like the idea of nuclear power,there’s always solar,or even hydothermal hotspots located far from areas needing electricity. Algeria plans to export solar electricity to Europe. It might be easier to export gas made from air. Ditto for that big hunk of desert in the American southwest. Whatever the energy equation,if it’s green and displaces fossil fuels,it sounds like a winner to me.

  10. Also,what if nuclear plants collected the CO2 and buried it. Could we have our cake and eat it too? Cleaner air and electricity to boot?

  11. 1. Many folks seem to be missing RR’s point — if you have a source of electricity, it makes more sense to use it for electric cars — it’s much more efficient, and you don’t have a distributed pollution source (i.e. tailpipes).

    2. Thorium reactors are interesting for their safety, breeder potential, and their ability to break down plutonium (the most dangerous substance known — it is ridiculously poisonous, highly radioactive, and it is awfully easy to make a bomb with just a few kg).

    That said, *any* nuclear technology has proliferation risks, and I don’t see how anyone can sit with the annihilation of whole cities as a possible side-effect of an “alternative energy solution”. Maybe we could keep reactors safe here in the U.S., but even if we don’t export the tech we’d be encouraging other countries to do the same. There are a lot of other options (e.g. solar thermal), so why do it except as another work program for the national labs?

  12. King of Katie said: “Maybe I should argue that there is no reason to spend tons of money on solar, wind, biofuels etc. – we should instead be throwing money at fusion.”

    You make a good point.

    Clean fusion reactors certainly have the highest potential payback and should receive the greatest effort and priority for research dollars.

    It would be easy to make a strong case that the development of controllable fusion should be this century’s Manhattan Project and receive number one priority.

    Once/If we achieve controllable fusion, our energy worries will be over.

  13. Farmer said: *any* nuclear technology has proliferation risks, and I don’t see how anyone can sit with the annihilation of whole cities as a possible side-effect of an “alternative energy solution”.


    A fusion reactor would be nuclear, but would have virtually no risk of proliferation and use as a weapon.

  14. I would be disappointed if this fuel-from-air scheme is a possible candidate for Richard Branson’s $25 million Virgin Earth prize. I was under the impression that the winner had to pull 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year for 10 years. I would be terribly disillusioned if they captured all that CO2, turned it into fuel, sold all that fuel to be burned, releasing the CO2 back into the atmosphere long before the 10 years were up, and if they still won the prize after all that. I really can’t imagine that they’d go through all the effort of turning CO2 (+H2O) into fuel, and then not use it as fuel.

  15. Robert,

    And when do we get to hear more about this CO2 capture plan?

    Soon, right?


  16. Robert,

    This concept comes from George Olah (Nobel prize chemistry 1994)and is covered in his book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy. In a nutshell, the idea is the same as the hydrogen economy. Understanding that H2 is an energy carrier that must be made using nuclear or some alternative energy source. But given that H2 is difficult to contain and transport in our current infrastructure. He proposes to use the simplest liquid carbon fuel as the energy carrier, methanol.

    It is a good resource that anyone interested in energy should read. The first half of the book is a review of all major energy sources and issues associated with them. The second half of the book goes into how MeOH could made from a source of energy and CO2 and be the fuel or the raw material for other fuels.

    I agree that saying fuel from the air is over the top.

    So what about the idea of having a wind farm or solar thermal plant or even a nuke producing Hydrogen (not electrcity) to feed into a coal gasification plant, producing a liquid fuel, with little or no CO2 waste. The fuel that comes out contains some energy from coal and and some energy from the Hydrogen factory. It would be similar to a plug-in vehicle except the mixed source energy would all be in the fuel tank.

    By the way, Olah has recently been involved with direct methanol fuel cells which he believes would be a big part of the methanol economy. I don’t know where this technology stands today, but I believe it is in it’s infancy.

  17. for anyone seeking basic knowledge on FUSION research–search out JET[joint europoean]. activity is decades old; still in the lab; power bursts in millisec. might try WICKIPEDIA. billions EU$ spent to date w/negligible usable output.

  18. for anyone seeking basic knowledge on FUSION research–search out JET[joint europoean]. activity is decades old; still in the lab; power bursts in millisec. might try WICKIPEDIA. billions EU$ spent to date w/negligible usable output.

  19. Oh, brother! Hasn’t anyone told them that nuclear power is impossible without fossil fuel inputs? And if fossil fuels are getting so expensive that we have to start coming up with all sorts of desperate schemes, how can we assume they will be cheap enough to continue propping up the nuclear power industry?

    Yea, I agree that if we have that much electricity, it would be better to use it to power electric vehicles. But then there is the little problem of how you manufacture the vehicles, maintain the roads they run on, etc.

    Forgive my skepticism, but I think it would make a lot more sense to start powering down, and restructuring the socioeconomic system to run on far less energy. Instead, we continue to factor in our waste and glitz, and assume we need enough energy to maintain it. It’s a recipe for disaster.

  20. Gasoline from air sounds like it has merit to me Robert. Even if you don’t like the idea of nuclear power,there’s always solar,or even hydothermal hotspots located far from areas needing electricity.

    Again, it isn’t that it can’t be done. But what you are doing is taking electricity – which could be used to power far more efficient electric motors – and turning into fewer BTUs of liquid fuel, which then power less efficient combustion engines. That doesn’t make sense.

    Given that this scheme doesn’t even exist, I think it would be of far more benefit to focus money and efforts on electrifying transport – which has even greater potential for displacing fossil fuels than does this scheme.


  21. The GreenFreedom CO2 to gasoline technology proposed by Los Alamos looks feasible, but it is a really bad idea. You start with a high-grade energy source: electricity. You then waste much of that electricity turning the energy into a low-grade energy source: gasoline. I call gasoline a low-grade energy source because the most practical way to extract energy is to burn it in a heat engine (e.g. an internal combustion engine, or ICE), and the efficiency of that is limited by thermodynamics (the Carnot limit). Your average gasoline ICE is about 21% efficient. I call electricity a high-grade energy source because it can be turned into work at very high efficiency (electric motors are routinely over 90% efficiency).

    The end result is that to drive on the gasoline from this process you would need 500 nuclear reactors for our current consumption rate, but if you drove directly on electricity you would need only 100. (Alternatively, you need 3,000 sq.mi. of solar power vs. 15,000 sq.mi.) Which do you think is more practical?

    U235 reserves are not infinite, though some in the nuclear industry act as if they are. If one counts what the IEA Red Book lists as “speculative” and “prognosticated” and with no price limit, then there is U235 to fuel the existing 449 reactors plus about 1100 new reactors in the world for at most 50 more years (note to future generation: replacing them with renewable energy when the U235 runs out is your problem, oh, and please dispose of them and the waste too). Building 500 just for U.S. gasoline consumption is folly.

  22. There is a practical, and sensible application of fuel from air: the DOD.

    Aircraft carriers have excess nuclear power, and carry planes that need jet fuel, and are surrounded by support ships that run on diesel. It can cost $70/gallon to deliver that fuel to a carrier group.

    The carrier could produce fuel for only the marginal cost of additional reactor fuel, sharply reduce DOD fuel consumption and costs, and greatly increase the military independence and readiness of aircraft carrier groups.

    The Navy and Air Force are deeply concerned about their vulnerability to fuel shortages, and this would help greatly.

    Can you see any flaws in this reasoning??

  23. rice farmer,
    Any fuel input used to “prop up” the nuclear industry could be produced using nuclear power. So in theory, nuclear power is possible without fossile fuel inputs.

  24. While I agree that electric cars have numerous advantages over ICEs, there is one serious drawback. when using a liquid fuel,I can, in a few minutes fill a tank up with liquid fuel containing enough energy to move me to wherever I want to go. when I run out, I can stop and refill.

    I can’t do the same thing with electricity. Energy density, recharge time, loss of capacity are all problems.

    That is why hybrids and plug-in hybrids are a good short term solution. You get the advantages of electricity without the battery problems.

    You can use nuclear (or wind, solar, etc.)to make the electricity and you can use it to make a liquid fuel. Making the liquid fuel may be less efficient, but it is easier to store in large quantities. So why not do both.

    Dennis Moore

  25. And on the fuel supply for nuclear reactors. Long before we start to run out of fuel, we will start digging up all of the nuclear “waste” and turn it into more fuel. Yucca mountian should be considerd a fuel storage site, not a waste disposal site.
    Dennis Moore

  26. One last comment

    If fusion were to work, what would we do? continue to fight battery technology so we could have our electric cars or produce a liquid fuel that works with our current infrastructure?

    I would do both.

    Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore…

  27. Come on now, this is perfectly rational. The straw-man of calling this an energy solution misdirects from what this really is: a mass flow solution.

    Just as solar energy collection via photovoltaics and solar-thermal engines is orders of magnitude more efficient than through fields of vegetable biomass (“green solar energy collection”), so too can be the mining of chemical materials from the environment by carbon-fixing technologies.

    Direct-to-electricity may seem the way for solar energy to be used, but we still need to replace carbon-based materials physically with a fossil fuel replacement. That’s either biomass (slow, inefficient use of sunshine-irradiated land) or a neo-photosynthesis that collects and fixes solar energy as energy bonds via chemical reduction of oxidized end-products of previous reduction-oxidation cycles.

    Air would seem the Big, Free Commons of gaseous carbon and hydrogen, though the low-hanging fruit of high-concentration gaseous exhausts and the low-energy partially-oxidized biomass liquids and solids commonly used now as fossil fuel replacements would seem to make more sense.

    Solar energy heating of your home needs solar emergy embodied in a carbon-fiber front door (whether natural wood fiber or synthetic carbon-fiber resin) to do it’s job. In theory, electrolytic syn gas-based carbon resin front doors should be made more abundantly from an acre’s worth of sunlight than than natural wooden doors.

    The feeding of syn-gas to microbes to make ethanol comes to mind. Heck, we could have electroltic ammonia to feed single-cell protein and generate a hundred-fold increase in per-acre solar productivity in agriculture.

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