13 February 2008

Fuel from CO2: Nature Does It, Why Not Us?

Roger Pielke Jr. has been talking about "air capture" of CO2 for years. The Europeans (ELCAT) have been working on methods to make hydrocarbon chains up to C8 from CO2 since 2004. In the US, at least three groups are working on CO2 to fuel processes: Global Research Technologies in Arizona, Sandia Labs in New Mexico, and Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico.
Scientists there [Los Alamos] say they have developed a way to produce a truly carbon-neutral fuel and useful organic chemicals at large scale using carbon dioxide removed from the air as the raw material. There are plenty of schemes brewing to capture carbon dioxide, both directly from the atmosphere and from the stacks of power plants. All of them, for the moment, are costly or hard to envision at the billion-tons-a-year scale that would be needed to blunt the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere coming mainly from fuel burning.

The advantage with the Los Alamos’s “Green Freedom” concept, and similar ones, is that reusing the carbon atoms in the captured CO2 molecules as a fuel ingredient avoids the need to find huge repositories for the greenhouse gas. The lab’s researchers, led by F. Jeffrey Martin, say their system could process vast volumes of air using existing giant structures like the cooling towers at nuclear power plants — a big possible advantage over using corn, switchgrass or other crops to capture the carbon for reuse.___NYT

Of course, nature has mastered the conversion of CO2 to burnable oils and biomass for over a billion years. That is one reason the concentration of CO2 in Earth's atmosphere is so low at this time. While humans are finding more efficient ways of using nature's ingenuity to supply fuel needs, the importance of finding ways to economically replace fossil fuels is acquiring urgency as the price of hydrocarbons continues to remain quite high.

It makes sense to work along several parallel paths in the quest to develop large and reliable supplies of hydrocarbon replacements. Craig Venter and his merry band of synthetic biologists are attempting to improve on nature through the creation of synthetic living fuel factories. Other scientists are attempting to "bypass the middle man" and go straight from CO2 to hydrocarbons using non-biological methods. To each his own.

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