Industry Market Trends

The Elusive Promise of Compatible, Affordable Synthetic Fuel Lingers On

Nov 16, 2012

Credit: Cella Energy

Reuters reports that British engineers have developed a method to create gasoline from air and water by extracting carbon dioxide from air and hydrogen from water, respectively, and then converting the resultant methanol. Engineers at Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS), in Teeside, England, claim to have produced 5 liters (approx. 1.3 gallons) of synthetic gasoline over a period of three months, according to the report.

The most intriguing part of the development is that renewable energy was used to power the process. This shows that it is possible to create a carbon-neutral fuel "that can be used in an identical way to standard petrol," Reuters quotes scientists working on the project as saying.

Peter Harrison, chief executive officer of AFS, told Reuters that the synthetic gasoline "doesn't contain what might be seen as pollutants, like sulphur," adding that he thinks the technology can be scaled up to refinery size and that AFS will eventually be able to refine the process to produce consumer-ready gasoline.

The catch is the immaturity of renewable energy itself, Harrison observes: "All we need is renewable energy to make it, and so when oil becomes a problem we will be able to make a contribution to keep cars moving or to keep planes moving."

The desire to create synthetic gasoline has been around practically as long as people have driven cars. In 1916, Louis Enricht, called a press conference in Farmingdale, N.Y., to demonstrate that he had devised a way to turn water into the equivalent of gasoline.

Enricht took the journalists out to the parking lot, filled a car's gas tank with water, dropped in a green pill that smelled strongly of almond -- i.e. cyanide -- and drove off. He issued a call for investment, and actually collected millions before it was discovered that he was really running the car on acetylene.

But Enricht made big news. The New York Times reported that Henry Ford, himself, came east to see a private demonstration of Enricht's "discovery."

Obviously there are great differences between AFS and Enricht -- AFS is above-board and producing fuel that could run cars. Granted, so will acetylene, but it is much more expensive than conventional gasoline, just like AFS's renewable-energy-produced petrol -- for the time being.

More recently, in January 2011, ran an article noting that UK-based Cella Energy "developed a synthetic fuel that could lead to $1.50 per gallon gasoline." While that sounded good on its own, what made the it even better was how the hydrogen-based fuel, developed using technology based on complex hydrides, didn't produce any carbon emissions and could be used in existing internal combustion engines (ICEs).

The synthetic fuel was "developed over a four-year top-secret program at the prestigious Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford," noted.

Stephen Voller, CEO of Cella Energy, at the time of the announcement, said the technology used "advanced materials science, taking high-energy materials and encapsulating them using a nanostructuring technique called coaxial electrospraying." The chief executive continued, telling, "We have developed new micro-beads that can be used in an existing gasoline or petrol vehicle to replace oil-based fuels."

It sounded a bit too good to be true, reminiscent of Enricht nearly a century ago.

As reported on the Hydrogn Fuel Cars & Vehicles blog in January 2011, Cella Energy was using ammonia borane (a storage medium for hydrogen fuel) plus coaxial electrospinning or electrospraying "to either supply pure hydrogen to fuel cell vehicles or ICE cars that can run on H2 or to reduce emissions on fossil-fuel-based vehicles."

Skepticism abounded, as it does whenever a synthetic gasoline is announced. Popular Science cast a colder eye on the claims, writing at the time of the announcement that while it is "all kinds of interesting," the sad truth is that "anytime anyone claims to have created inexpensive synthetic fuel that will burn in conventional automobile engines with no carbon emissions, you simply have to be on your guard."

According to Cella Energy officials, the coaxial electrospinning process "can be used to create micron-scale micro-fibers or micro-beads, nano-porous polymers filled with the chemical hydride," producing "an inexpensive, compound material that can be handled safely in air, operates at low pressures and temperatures and has sufficiently high hydrogen concentration and rapid desorption kinetics to be useful for transport applications."

The company said that hydrogen would make a great clean fuel, as it packs a ton of energy for its weight, but the problem is that it is a gas. Therefore, it said that "squeezing it into a small volume so that it can be used in vehicles or electronics is the last remaining challenge before hydrogen can be adopted as a practical energy."

Company officials claimed that coaxial electrospinning provides encapsulation and nano-structuring of chemical hydrides in plastic so that they can be handled in air, and the hydrogen is released "quickly and cleanly upon heating." The polymer structures are described by the company as 30 times smaller than a human hair, but containing "as much hydrogen for a given weight as the high-pressure tanks currently used to store hydrogen," and can be made into micro-beads and poured and pumped as a liquid.

The plastic pellets can produce 1 liter of hydrogen at normal pressures and temperatures and can be safely store the H2 at ambient temperatures and packaged into a regular-shaped fuel tank. The pellets, Cella Energy noted, can be manufactured using widely available technology.

Alas, we haven't seen $1.50 synthetic gas at the pump. Cella Energy's website today lists the company as working, for the near term, on a range of additional applications for the technology besides transportation fuels, including military power solutions for unmanned systems with three times the duration of lithium-ion batteries, radiation shielding materials for space satellites and longer-lasting power for portable electronics such as laptops.

The company also stated that its goal is to "produce a new source of transport fuel that is commercial, competitive, available at scale - and does not require a whole new infrastructure." There is no indication of a timetable for when that will be.