So Much for Peak Oil, Plug-In Hybrids, and Reliance on Foreign Dictators
Cross-Posted from Prometheus.
In the New York Times Kenneth Chang reports on a novel application of air capture of carbon dioxide that promises carbon neutral gasoline forever. If commercially viable the technology could prove enormously disruptive to all sorts of interests.
The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.
This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels. The closed cycle — equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed — would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.
Although they have not yet built a synthetic fuel factory, or even a small prototype, the scientists say it is all based on existing technology.
"Everything in the concept has been built, is operating or has a close cousin that is operating," Dr. Martin said.
The Los Alamos proposal does not violate any laws of physics, and other scientists, like George A. Olah, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the University of Southern California, and Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University, have independently suggested similar ideas. Dr. Martin said he and Dr. Kubic had worked out their concept in more detail than previous proposals.
There is, however, a major caveat that explains why no one has built a carbon-dioxide-to-gasoline factory: it requires a great deal of energy.
To deal with that problem, the Los Alamos scientists say they have developed a number of innovations, including a new electrochemical process for detaching the carbon dioxide after it has been absorbed into the potassium carbonate solution. The process has been tested in Dr. Kubic’s garage, in a simple apparatus that looks like mutant Tupperware.
Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline on a commercial scale — say, 750,000 gallons a day — would require a dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one, the scientists say.
According to their analysis, their concept, which would cost about $5 billion to build, could produce gasoline at an operating cost of $1.40 a gallon and would turn economically viable when the price at the pump hits $4.60 a gallon, taking into account construction costs and other expenses in getting the gas to the consumer. With some additional technological advances, the break-even price would drop to $3.40 a gallon, they said.
If their economic numbers are even close to the mark then air capture is coming to a refinery near you. Are you ready?