Recovering atmospheric carbon can make new fuel

Shape of things to come? The Pipistrel Velis Electro aircraft could point the way towards zero-carbon aviation. Image: By Andrejcheck, via Wikimedia Commons

Taking atmospheric carbon dioxide from the air to make fuel could tackle two threats: greenhouse gases and oil shortage.

LONDON, 4 February, 2021 − British scientists have worked out a way of recovering atmospheric carbon, meaning they can conjure aviation jet fuel from thin air, using an inexpensive catalyst to turn carbon dioxide into a range of hydrocarbons so far produced from crude oil.

More than 6,000 miles to the east, chemists have produced an aerogel, one kilogramme of which is capable of producing − again just from the ambient air − 17 litres of fresh water in a day.

Both these solutions to a growing demand for fuel and water are only at the demonstration stage. Commercial production is a long way off.

Both are yet more evidence of the enormous ingenuity and invention at work in the world’s laboratories and universities as they address the energy dilemma: how to power human society without generating the greenhouse gases that could also − through climate change driven by global heating − ultimately destroy it.

“[This is] a vision for the route to achieving net-zero carbon emissions from aviation; a fulcrum of a future global zero-carbon aviation sector”

For years researchers have addressed one power paradox: that the world is driven by fossil fuels which in combustion emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But fossil fuels are already fashioned − over millions of years − from organic material composed ultimately of carbon dioxide.

That is: all hydrocarbons must have once just been the greenhouse gas. So there might just be a clever way to shorten the process, and turn atmospheric carbon directly into butane or ethylene or kerosene.

Researchers from Oxford University report in the journal Nature Communications that with help from an organic compound − they used citric acid − they have fashioned a catalyst from iron, manganese and potassium that could directly convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons very like jet fuel, with a bonus of ethylene and other products important to the petrochemical industry as well.

The researchers call their work “a significant advance” and a vision for “the route to achieving net-zero carbon emissions from aviation; a fulcrum of a future global zero-carbon aviation sector.”

Renewable water supply

The air we breathe is not just oxygen, nitrogen, argon and carbon dioxide: it also contains colossal amounts of water vapour, enough to fill 500 thousand billion Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Researchers at the National University of Singapore report in the journal Science Advances that they have fashioned an aerogel − think of a jelly made from air rather than water − that of itself collects water molecules from the air, condenses them into a liquid and releases the water: 95% of the vapour that goes in is released as water.

It needs no power source, the water meets World Health Organisation standards for drinking water, and in laboratory tests one aerogel sample went on for months.

Since vapour is constantly renewed by sun-driven evaporation, once again, the water supply becomes renewable. The next step is to find an industrial partner and a market where clean water is scarce. − Climate News Network