So now the green energy warriors are making fuel out of thin air (literally)

This is some really amazing news out of the green energy, climate change community which should have everyone partying in the streets before long. An industrial plant in Canada is producing diesel fuel out of thin air… plus some water and a few other things. And as part of their save the world agenda, they’re doing it by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, thereby reducing greenhouse gas levels. That’s simply incredible. If I’d known we could make gasoline out of air all this time we wouldn’t have to bother with all that messy drilling into the ground. Any moment now we should be able to close all the coal mines and the ocean levels should begin to recede. I’m excited about this plan.

Okay, guys… let’s see what you’ve got. (Technology Review)

On Friday a group of government officials, environmentalists, and local bigwigs gathered in the coastal town of Squamish, British Columbia, about an hour north of Vancouver, to mark the onset of what could one day be a new industry: creating carbon-neutral transportation fuel made from carbon dioxide captured from air.

The company that built the plant, Carbon Engineering, was founded by a Canadian scientist named David Keith. A Harvard professor of applied physics, Keith has made headlines before for his outspoken advocacy for more research into geoengineering (specifically, seeding the lower stratosphere with sulfuric acid to reflect sunlight and cool the planet)…

The process uses a large wall of fans, known as a contactor, to push air through a liquid that reacts with the CO2. That carbon dioxide-rich solution is then put through several processing steps to create a purified stream of CO2 gas and the liquid that is returned to the contactor.

Well that all sounds just great. And Dr. Keith isn’t even the first one to do it. Audi was playing around with this for a couple of years and they produced some diesel about six months ago.

The base fuel is referred to as “blue crude,” and begins by taking electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar or hydropower and using it to produce hydrogen from water via reversible electrolysis. The hydrogen is then mixed with CO2 that has been converted into CO in two chemical processes and the resulting reactions produce a liquid made from long-chain hydrocarbons – this is blue crude, which is then refined to create the end product, the synthetic e-diesel.

It’s a clever idea and one that’s interesting enough to go read up on the details of how this works. They’re basically using huge fans to drive air through a solution of molten lithium carbonate with lithium oxide dissolved in it. (Sounds tasty, eh?) Then you force a large electric current through it and the carbon falls out of solution, releasing oxygen. You next need to take fresh water (not like we’re going to run out of that any time soon, eh California?) and run electricity through that to produce hydrogen and more oxygen. Then you combine the hydrogen and the carbon (using even more energy) and… voila! You have fuel in the form of long chain hydrocarbons.

But before the Greens begin celebrating too much there are a few things to note about it. First of all, they’re talking about removing carbon from the atmosphere and managing a “carbon neutral process” to produce fuel. As you read each of the articles carefully you’ll note that they all specify that this only works if you power the new fuel plant exclusively with solar or wind energy. And it takes up a lot of energy, so good luck with that. If you run it off the general power grid (which is still largely driven by coal) you’ll actually put more carbon into the atmosphere as part of the process than you remove.

And how much carbon are they eliminating? The developer in Canada estimates that the plant can strip approximately one metric ton of carbon from the air per day. Not to burst anyone’s bubble here, but the atmosphere has approximately 3×10 to the 12th power metric tons of carbon. (I don’t even know how to quantify a number that large.) Also, it’s worth noting that your average acre of adult trees strips more carbon out of the air than that and they do it for free.

Oh, and those long chain hydrocarbons being produced at the end of all this? Yeah, we knew about those already. We usually call them crude oil. (But this stuff is cleaner, to be sure, since crude has a lot of other compounds mixed in with it.) But the “blue e-crude” being produced can’t just be put in your tank. It has to be blended with standard diesel just like the synthetics we get from the tar sands in Canada. Just saying…

This is some pretty cool science as I’ll be the first to admit. And if they can find a place with enough wind and solar to run a plant and they want to scrub a few hundred tons of carbon out of the air and make a few thousand gallons of synthetic diesel… hey. Who am I to judge? Have a party, pal. But let’s not pretend you’ve suddenly solved the world’s emissions problems and are about to replace oil as a fuel source.