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UK company develops 'petrol from air' technology

19 October 2012

A small company in the north of England, Air Fuel Synthesis, has created synthetic petrol using only air and electricity, according to The Daily Telegraph. Experts said the new technology was a potential game-changer in the battle against climate change and a possible solution to the world’s energy crisis.

An Air Fuel Synthesis team member supervising the petrol from air process
An Air Fuel Synthesis team member supervising the petrol from air process

The technology, presented to a London engineering conference this week, removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The ‘petrol from air’ process involves taking sodium hydroxide and mixing it with carbon dioxide before electrolysing the sodium carbonate that it produces to form pure carbon dioxide. Hydrogen is then produced by electrolysing water vapour captured with a dehumidifier.

The company then uses the carbon dioxide and hydrogen to produce methanol which in turn is passed through a gasoline fuel reactor, creating petrol.

Company officials say they had produced five litres of the petrol from a small refinery in Stockton-on-Tees, Teesside.

The fuel that is produced can be used in any regular petrol tank and, if renewable energy is used to provide the electricity it could become “completely carbon neutral”.

The £1.1m project, in development for the past two years, is being funded by a group of unnamed philanthropists who believe the technology could prove to be a lucrative way of creating renewable energy, and has the backing of Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Company executives hope to build a large plant, which could produce more than a tonne of petrol every day, within two years, and a refinery size operation within the next 15 years.

Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) chief executive Stephen Tetlow hailed the breakthrough as “truly groundbreaking”.

“It has the potential to become a great British success story, which opens up a crucial opportunity to reduce carbon emissions,” he said. “It also has the potential to reduce our exposure to an increasingly volatile global energy market.”

Dr Tim Fox, the organisation's head of energy and environment, added: “Air capture technology ultimately has the potential to become a game-changer in our quest to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Peter Harrison, the company’s chief executive, told The Daily Telegraph that he was “excited” about the technology’s potential, which “uses renewable energy in a slightly different way”.

Mr Harrison, a civil engineer from Darlington, said: “It is an opportunity for a technology to make an impact on climate change and make an impact on the energy crisis facing this country and the world. It looks and smells like petrol but it is much cleaner and we don't have any nasty bits."

Update: On 20 October, Air Fuel Synthesis’ founder and principal investor, Professor Tony Marmont, said that he and his business colleagues would not want the oil industry to take a stake in the firm even though it is actively seeking investment partners to finance the next stage of development.

Professor Marmont, who used to work for Shell, put up half of the £1.2m used to set up the company. He said he was close to a deal with a major soft-drinks company interested in using the petrol to power its carbon-neutral vehicles.

"I would shudder at the prospect of an approach from the oil industry. My reaction would be 'I don't want to know' because I'd be fearful they would buy into the business and work to shut it down," he said.

"We've had calls offering us money from all over the world. We've never had that before. We've made the first petrol with our demonstration plant but the next stage is to build a bigger plant capable of producing one tonne of petrol a day, which means we need between £5m and £6m."

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