‘AIR TO FUELS’ TECHNOLOGY: COULD THIS BE THE FUTURE?

Posted on Posted in Africa, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Education & Advocacy, Environmental Law, Green Living, Hunger & Poverty, Policy & Governance, Sustainable Development, Technology

Many agree that Climate Change is real and that we need to act fast to protect our only home – the earth. One of such people is the world’s richest man and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who is also putting his money where his mouth is. Together with his partners, they are experimenting with a technology that could potentially address Climate Change by providing clean fuel.

Already, engineers in their facility – Carbon Engineering have successfully extracted CO2 from the air and used it to produce a mix of petrol and diesel. However, this was done on a small scale with hopes to eventually replicate the process on an industrial scale.

The individual technologies employed such as carbon capture and fuel synthesis are not new. But when combined, scaled up and powered by clean solar energy, they offer an invaluable opportunity to clean up the planet and provide a new source of carbon-neutral fuel that uses less land and water than biofuels or other fuel alternatives. Carbon Engineering also estimates that once scaled up, the technology could produce fuels for less than $1 per litre! Cheap and clean fuel? Yes, please!

The entire process is known as “air to fuels” (A2F) and consists of three main steps:

  1. CO2 is captured from the air and purified. The facility currently removes up to one tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere each day.
  2. Clean electricity such as solar power is used to split hydrogen from water.
  3. Finally, CO2 and hydrogen are synthesized into fuel such as diesel and jet fuel.

Fuels produced in this way are also cleaner burning than conventional fossil fuels. According to Carbon Engineering, “A2F is a potentially game-changing technology.” It “offers an alternative to biofuels and a complement to electric vehicles in the effort to displace fossil fuels from transportation.” This is true because electric vehicles are more suited to shorter distances whereas long-haul transport, ships and aeroplanes still need the high-energy density of liquid fuels.

But, there are concerns and reservations about the principles behind A2F. Critics argue that the world’s main priority should be to emit less in the first place rather than capturing it. In the journal Science, Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and Glen Peters, research director at the Centre for International Climate Research (Cicero) in Norway, argue that the technologies to remove carbon may not work at scale. If governments continue to assume that these technologies will clean up the atmosphere in future, it gives them less of an incentive to cut emissions now.

Shocking extent of oil pollution in Nigeria’s Niger Delta
Shocking extent of oil pollution in Nigeria’s Niger Delta

Anderson also points out that this is a dangerously optimistic assumption given how new and unproven these technologies are on a large scale. If such technologies are not as successful as promised, they pose a high risk especially to those living in poor and climatically vulnerable communities and future generations will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.

Bill Gates argues that governments and companies need to invest in a wide range of cutting-edge energy technologies, from solar fuels to more efficient grids, even though it may take many years for them to work at scale. “Breakthroughs in energy technologies could reduce air pollution, help people escape poverty, and avoid the worst effects of climate change,” he said in an opinion piece on clean energy last year. “But here’s the tricky part: we don’t yet know which ones will succeed. So we need to explore lots of ideas with investments from both the government and the private sector.”

So in the meantime, while we continue to advocate cutting consumption of fossil fuels and transition to cleaner fuels, we should also applaud efforts and initiatives like A2F and investments in a wide range of other clean technologies.

 

RESOURCES:

Bill Gates is planning to strip CO2 from the air and turn it into clean fuel

Turning Carbon Dioxide into Petrol – Carbon Capture – Horizons – Youtube:

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