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American Innovation
Can We Turn CO2 Into Fuel?

The boundary between science and science fiction is blurring, as researchers are hard at work developing methods to capture the problematic greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and turn it into diesel. Science Alert reports:

Scientists in Canada are developing an industrial carbon dioxide recycling plant that could one day suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and convert it into a zero-carbon e-diesel fuel. Developed by tech start-up Carbon Engineering and partly funded by Bill Gates, the system will essentially do the job of trees, but in places unable to host them, such as icy plains and deserts…[T]he CO2 recycling plant will combine carbon dioxide with hydrogen split from water to form hydrocarbon fuel. […]

Carbon Engineering is one of a handful of companies around the world that are now set on coming up with ways to suck enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to actually put a dent in the effects of climate change. There’s also the New York City-based start-up Global Thermostat, and Swiss-based Climeworks, which demonstrated earlier this year with Audi how its technology can capture carbon dioxide, and deliver it to German company Sunfire, where it was recycled into a zero-carbon diesel fuel.

When we look to the future, there’s a tendency to discount the possibility of radical technological leaps, to see humanity continue to grow and place a greater strain on its environment without taking into account our capacity to adapt to the new challenges we’ll soon be facing. That kind of thinking leads to the Malthusian hand-wringing characteristic of most modern green activism, but it’s a deeply distorted way of seeing the world.

The pace of technological change is accelerating, and that phenomenon isn’t just providing consumers with fancier phones—it’s also giving farmers the ability to grow more food while emitting less gasses and opening up vast new energy sources capable of reducing our reliance on some of our dirtiest supplies. The idea that we could not only capture carbon from our atmosphere—already a burgeoning industry in its own right—but also recycle that gas to produce fuel is a radical idea.

There are so many different, potentially game-changing innovations being researched right now that, while it’s too early to pick and choose which will work out, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the future. At the very least, it’s difficult to look at the next fifty years with the kind of Chicken Little mentality environmentalists favor.

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  • John Dowd

    People have wondered from time to time if we could use nuclear energy to power “planes, trains and automobiles”. This is one way to do it indirectly. Given the right regulatory environment the next generation of nuclear power plants should be up to the “job”. The Green lobby will fight it of course becuase the mitigation of CO2 was never its true objective in the first place. It’s real objective was total control of the economy to implement the vision of Karl Marx. As the radicals in the 1970’s were fond of saying, “the issue is not the issue”. It never is.

  • dankingbooks

    This sounds to me like a perpetual motion machine. Where’s the energy going to come from to push CO2 back into a hydrocarbon fuel?

    • dawnsblood

      That appears to be the rub. I remember when folks were pushing hydrogen powered vehicles. They bragged about how only water was coming from the tailpipe. What they tried really hard to keep people from thinking about was how much CO2 was generated creating the hydrogen for the car.

    • Tate Metlen

      The hard thing about energy is not making it, but storing it, distributing it, and having it compatible with the existing infrastructure. .. that’s hard. They didn’t claim this was an energy positive process.

    • Felipe Pait

      That’s what it appears to me to. Reminiscent of George W Bush’s “hydrogen economy”.

      The article seems to be unaware of the need for an energy source and of the laws of thermodynamics. Perhaps the company has something in mind, but no one should ever have reposted this piece.

  • Fat_Man

    I am not a petroleum engineer, but Robert Rapier is. And he is one of the best commentors on issues like this. He wrote about it this week.

    “Is Audi’s Carbon-Neutral Diesel a Game-Changer?” By Robert Rapier on Apr 30, 2015

    He explains everything with numbers and chemical formulae. He says that the system would require 3 BTUs of energy inputs for every BTU of fuel produced.

    Go read what he said.

    Bottom line. This is a pipe dream.

    • Pete

      Of course it is a pipe dream. The thermodynamics says it would take more energy to convert CO2 into diesel than to breakdown the hydrocarbon into CO2 and water.

      Mead’s kiddies need a little science in their education.

      • Fat_Man

        That is why I referred them to Robert Rapier, who really does know what he is writing about.

    • Dan

      A question… ” He says that the system would require 3 BTUs of energy inputs for every BTU of fuel produced.” If the issue is only concerned with removing CO2 then why does it matter how much energy it takes? Because most of the energy we use it carbon based so it defeats the purpose? or some other reason? i.e. what if the energy used to make the fuel was nuclear? would it then seem like a better idea?

  • Andrew Allison

    A zero carbon diesel fuel made from CO2??? GMAB. That makes about as much sense as a zero-emissions motor vehicle, i.e. whence cometh the energy. Is it not self-evident that the most carbon-efficient way to release energy is to do so where it’s needed, e.g. in an internal combustion engine, rather than remotely?

    • dawnsblood

      I think they consider it zero emissions because 100% of the carbon will be pulled out of the atmosphere. Since the CO2 is just returning to the sky, it isn’t adding any more than would already have been there in the first place. It is a technical issue but I see what the reasoning is.

  • GS

    Making that fuel would take more energy than burning it will produce, and since almost all electricity production is inefficient [the non-hydroelectric power plants emanate a lot of parasitic heat], it would be only worse for the environment. Behold the evils of PC.

  • JR

    This sounds like a total pipe dream. Same way some bio-fuel will be available for commercial use in two years for 30 years now. Having said that, one day it will actually work. What a wonderful day it will be, if not for us, than for our kids!

  • FriendlyGoat

    It’s hard to not be skeptical about this, but I don’t think total nonsense is easily sold to Bill Gates. So we’ll wait and see what might work.

    • rheddles

      It’s hard to not be skeptical about this

      Because you so don’t want it to happen.

    • Anthony

      FG, not wanting to interject on a quasi scientific exchange but here’s something of interest (historical comparison of Fascism) that lends itself to your “lights”. I could not find a more current or related posting from you so here it is:

      • FriendlyGoat

        Thanks. That was a very good article.

        1) I like Trump in the race. He really is a “clarifying” force to help everyone on all sides know what Republicanism actually is. I don’t think he is a buffoon. I think he is serious and scary (which is good for voters).

        2) I’ve always believed a lot of people talk about fascism without knowing what it is. This copy clip from your Salon article is a gem:

        “Giovanni Gentile, the “philosopher of fascism” and ghostwriter for Mussolini, said of the definition of fascism in the Encyclopedia of Italiana: “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

        • Anthony

          Your welcome! And I agree the man is definitely no buffoon and knows how to take what they give him (politically speaking).

  • Gary Hemminger

    I don’t see the green agenda as being about cleaning up the planet, so much as I see the green movement as having morphed into using the environment to achieve their anti-capitalist ideals. It has taken me a long time to come to this conclusion, but it is clear this is what the bulk of the green movement is about.

    Just a few days ago I read some nutcase environment writer who was saying that people in Europe don’t understand why people in the US are so enamored with air-conditioning and that if all people used air-conditioning the way the US did, the worldwide use of energy would rise some 5 times. And his example was Berlin vs. Washington DC. He actually compared the two as to summertime temperature and said they are similar but no one in Berlin has air-conditioning. A 5 minute search on would show the avg high/low temperature in Washington DC in July is 89-71; while Berlin is 74-55. So this environmental writer was off on two fronts. The temperature in DC is not even close to the temperature in Berlin (much hotter) and he made no adjustment for the fact that as more people do use air conditioning, people will find ways of doing it cheaper and with less energy consumption.

    This straight line thinking of discounting any future technological improvement has been one of the things Dr. Mead has continually expounded upon, yet it continues to be the mainline thinking of the environmental movement.

    But the one that really takes the cake is our California Governor Jerry Brown making cataclysmic statements like we are all going to go extinct if we don’t give in to controlling our environment by who knows what. Can you believe that a rational person who leads one of the biggest economies in the world could be saying with a straight face that we are going to go extinct? And no one says anything about him having some kind of mental illness. What kind of strange chicken little world do we live in? Has it always been like this or is it indeed worse now than ever? I don’t know, but the progressives seem to have incorporated Malthusian-ism into their ideology.

  • MarkE

    Perhaps the extra BTU’s could come from energy sources that are otherwise wasted or not on-demand such as sun power, wind power, wave power, or geothermal power. The fuel could be stored in solid or liquid form resulting in a net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

  • Proud Skeptic

    Wind power is a dead end. Solar probably has some opportunity. I’m convinced that the next great energy source is something we haven’t heard of yet.
    As for this technology…it would be interesting to know how much energy it takes to split the hydrogen out of the water compared to what comes out at the end of the process.

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