Years ago, when I knew a lot less than I do now about sustainability, I found myself thinking that if only there was a way to turn CO2 into something useful, that could be a great money maker that would also go a long way to mitigating our climate change problem.
No doubt that’s what the folks at Carbon Sciences were thinking when they decided to pursue development of a liquid fuel that could be produced from a mixture of carbon dioxide and natural gas. They have now succeeded calling the resulting fuel CO2-GTL (CO2 gas to liquid) gasoline. This is not an entirely new idea. A process for converting CO2 and natural gas into liquid fuel had already existed before. In fact, it was derived from the coal to liquid Fischer-Tropsch process that the Germans used during WWII. But the process was energy intensive, expensive and dirty.
What the folks at Carbon Sciences have done is by incorporating a novel catalyst developed at the University of Saskatchewan and using a membrane reactor, they are able to eliminate a number of steps from the process which can now operate at a lower energy level while releasing little or no CO2 to the atmosphere and with minimal coking, a major problem in earlier efforts. The resulting high octane gasoline will contain no NOx, SOx or heavy metals, nor will it need any toxic MTBE-type additives. This is some impressive science that will no doubt prove beneficial as we work our way through the energy maze that lies ahead.
Why then you ask, is my enthusiasm so clearly muted?
On their website Carbon Sciences claims that they can get the gas they need from benign sources such landfills, gas flares, livestock gas and biofuel. But if this type of fuel is truly going to displace the 130 billion or so gallons of petroleum-based gasoline we use every year that’s not going to be enough. The only way to substantially increase the amount of feedstock is to encourage the use of more coal-fired electricity and to pull the CO2 off from the plants. Indeed DOE-funded research performed at the University of West Virginia on CO2-methane bi-reforming was clearly intending to do just that as the coal industry is desperately trying to stay relevant in the face of rising prices, competition from cheaper energy sources, risk and regulations.
Carbon Sciences has beaten them to the punch. From their website, “When our CO2-to-Methane module is developed, coal-fired power plants will have a complete industrial scale chemical process to transform CO2 emissions directly into gasoline, without methane.”
When I first thought about turning CO2 into something useful, I was thinking of building materials or something like that, something that wouldn’t be burned right away. That way the CO2 would be sequestered, at least for a while, until the material decomposed when its useful life was over. That would at least delay the time when the CO2 would be added to the atmosphere, perhaps giving the atmosphere more time to absorb it while we continued to reduce our emission levels.
But when that gasoline that is going to be so cleanly derived from coal smokestacks is burned in my car, the CO2 will go straight into the atmosphere just like it does now. So what have we really accomplished?
We would no longer be using oil and we would be capturing CO2 and methane that might have otherwise been emitted along the way (which is all good) but we would still be emitting CO2 at the end of the process.
It is not a closed system. If they could find a way to capture the CO2 coming out of the tailpipe of the vehicles and recycle it back into the gas tank, then it would be a closed system.
Perhaps that could be developed someday, but what is the likelihood that that would ever be cost effective? And since the amount of gasoline returned to the tank would be only a fraction of what you started with; it would still need to be replenished from somewhere.
In the mean time, this is incremental innovation, which is, by definition based on the premise that we don’t really want to change any more than we have to.
That might be fine for an interim solution, which this can clearly be. But to become truly sustainable, we’re going to move beyond the extractive mentality that our energy system is based on today and move to an entirely new approach. Interim solutions must be approached with caution, since they often compete with the more bold long-term solutions that usually involve larger investments.
If we migrate to electric vehicles, we have a real shot at a truly carbon free transportation system. Of course it will be expensive and take time. In the mean time, this technology could very well be a viable candidate to help minimize our carbon emissions as we make our way beyond it to a totally carbon-free system.
As for CO2, it turns out that the best way to take it out of the atmosphere is to convert it into something solid that will last for a very long time, like coal. This is, in fact, exactly what nature has done for us already and the best thing we can do with that is to leave it alone.
RP Siegel, PE, is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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