Monday, 26 April 2010

Green pioneers: Modern alchemy turns air into fuel

Petra Cameron and Matthew Jones will extract carbon dioxide and convert it
Danny Fortson

PRODUCING petrol from air sounds like science fiction, but Petra Cameron and Matthew Jones, chemists at the University of Bath, have received £1.4m in taxpayer’s money to show that it can be done.
The pair are leading a team of 14 scientists that could one day make “air refineries”, which would pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and mix it with hydrogen to create fuel. The implications are mind-boggling. But Cameron and Jones speak about the project with the detachment of seasoned scientists.
“The basic idea is to take carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into chemicals, fuels and plastics that are today derived from hydrocarbons,” said Jones. “We think we can make good headway in the next year or so.”
It almost sounds easy.

It’s not. The process can be roughly broken down into two halves. The first revolves round sucking carbon dioxide out of the air. Jones and the team at Bath are developing powders, called metal-organic frameworks, to do just that. These can be engineered to act like sponges that bind with atmospheric carbon dioxide and not other elements such as nitrogen and oxygen that are in the atmosphere. The second part of the process involves coming up with a way to create hydrogen, the other element in hydrocarbons.
That is where Cameron and her colleagues come in. Creating hydrogen with today’s technology uses vast amounts of energy to strip it out of substances such as methane or else to power electrolysis to separate it out of water, which consists of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
Cameron said that algae, with the aid of chemical agents, could feed on light and the carbon dioxide captured in Jones’s powders to produce hydrogen biologically.
“We need a sustainable source of hydrogen,” she said. “Today that comes from [oil]. Algae fuel cells could be a source in the future.”
Jones is developing catalysts to convert the trapped carbon dioxide and the hydrogen into fuels.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of Research Councils UK, awarded the team £1.4m last month to get the project going. It has drawn together scientists from a range of disciplines at three universities — Bath, Bristol and the West of England.
Jones said: “Some of the technology is known and proven, but the key is to get it to produce fuel on a commercial scale.”
The concept is not new. Researchers in Japan and America are working on the same idea. The US Department of Energy has put millions into similar projects. The recent surge in the oil price has made alternatives to fossil fuels more attractive.
Does that mean that in future we could top up our petrol tanks with a few heavy breaths? “I don’t think so,” said Jones. “A more realistic possibility is that in 20 years we will have carbon dioxide refineries, just like we have oil refineries today.”