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Got carbon dioxide? Make fuel

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By Roger Snodgrass

A scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory is at a conference in Florida today, pitching the idea of making gasoline from air and water.Jeffrey Martin, a nuclear engineer who has most recently been a senior advisor in the laboratory director’s office, is attending the Alternative Energy NOW conference in Lake Buena Vista with a plan for producing a synthetic gasoline that can power planes and cars out of plain air.In a telephone interview Tuesday, Martin said the idea grew out of a military request for ideas on how to field a fuel-making system in the backcountry of Afghanistan, where the defense department was paying $1,000 a gallon for gas.He didn’t immediately solve the problem but in the process, Martin said, he came up with the idea of a much more efficient and affordable form of liquid fuel.It is called “Green Freedom,” and the basic idea is to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combine it with hydrogen split from water to make a hydrocarbon fuel.“The trick and the challenge for ‘Green Freedom’ was that you had to process a huge amount of air,” said Martin.Carbon dioxide makes up 370 parts per million in the air, a significant amount as a greenhouse gas, but not very dense as an industrial resource. The researchers solved the problem by proposing to use the cooling towers from power plants, which process a lot of air as a matter of course.By using something very much like baking soda, and a common technique of what Martin called “kitchen chemistry,” 90 percent of the carbon dioxide that goes through the cooling tower can be captured in a solution.Releasing it from the solution at a reasonable cost has been another problem, but now Martin and his partner, William Kubic Jr., have developed a new electro-chemical process that does that, too.Ultimately, “Green Freedom” does not reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but it does recycle the gas, so that at least no more is added to the atmosphere.A realistic goal, Martin said, would be to try to make up for the annual decline in the domestic production of oil.“We’d have to build eight or nine plants per year, each of which would provide fuel for a city the size of Albuquerque,” he said.According to his most current numbers, the plant itself would cost $5.2 billion to build and would produce 800,000 gallons at an operating cost of $1.54 per gallon. But paying off the capital costs, the loans to build the plant, would bring the net cost to the consumer to $5 per gallon.The plan is to demonstrate the concept next year and then continue to optimize it in a pilot commercial plant in five years.“By the time we build one of these things, we’ll be in the neighborhood” of a competitive price, Martin said.The idea is a carbon-neutral power source, a liquid fuel that could be trucked and piped like ordinary gasoline and doesn’t require the vast infrastructure investment of hydrogen.To keep it carbon-neutral, coal- and natural gas-fired plants would be eliminated, but solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and nuclear power plants would all be a possibility. Nuclear would be the least expensive option, he said.The concept may be adopted first by the military, which is beginning to look around very seriously for a bridging energy solution.The U.S. Air Force, especially, has committed to establishing a green fuel stream for its aircraft. There will be representatives from all the forces at the conference in Florida.This is the first time the idea has been presented publicly.“We see this as a hedge to the future for civilian as well as military needs,” Martin said.