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Boffins ready air-to-fuel converter

Boffins ready air-to-fuel converter

Lead boffin Rich Diver poses next to the nearly-finished CR5 sunlight-to-fuel converter prototype.

A team at Sandia National Laboratories thinks it may have a new toy for generating a variety of fuels – including hydrogen, methanol, and even petrol and diesel – from thin air.

Dubbed the Counter Rotating Ring Receiver Reactor (or CR5) the device is designed to break the carbon-oxygen bond within carbon dioxide to form oxygen and carbon monoxide using concentrated solar energy. Okay, so it doesn't exactly make petrol from 'thin air', but bear with me on this one.

The original idea, as described by the brains behind the scheme Rich Diver, was to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The team soon realised that the same system could be used to break down carbon dioxide instead. Carbon dioxide and water are both by-products of the combustion process, so the scheme to take the waste products and turn them back into fuel has eco-warriors delighted.

The hydrogen and carbon monoxide the system recovers can be used as the starting block for synthesised versions of various fossil fuels which can then be used again and again in much the same way as we purify waste water for drinking. The system isn't lossless, of course, but anything which gives us a bit more bang per gallon of crude has to be a good thing.

The fuels created using the system would be carbon-neutral and, wonder of wonders, work in existing engines (including generators and vehicles) without the need for any modification.

The team is currently putting the finishing touches to the prototype, having already proven the science works well enough to be practical. Sadly for anyone who fancies telling people they run their car on 'sunlight and air', the technology is probably about ten to fifteen years away from commercialisation: by which time we'll certainly need it.

A more likely way to turn sunlight into energy than solar cells, or are you going to rely on old-fashioned pedal-power to keep the lights on when we run out of oil? Give us the skinny over in the forums.

39 Comments

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C-Sniper 8th January 2008, 11:52 Quote
wow.... that is amazing, whoever thought we could do that from plain air. I know that they can do that for making water in disaster releif areas but never thought of it as being possible with fuel.
Glider 8th January 2008, 11:53 Quote
I do wonder how much energy goes into the reconversion. Is it all supplied by the sun?
DXR_13KE 8th January 2008, 12:14 Quote
we kind of need it now.... not latter.....
arcticstoat 8th January 2008, 12:19 Quote
Boffins? Are you trying to be The Register or The Inquirer or something?
Gareth Halfacree 8th January 2008, 12:23 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by arcticstoat
Boffins? Are you trying to be The Register or The Inquirer or something?

No, but I *am* from the UK. According to my copy of the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

boffin
noun [C] MAINLY UK INFORMAL
a scientist who is considered to know a lot about science and not to be interested in other things:
a technical/computer boffin

I'd say that Mr. Diver fits that description pretty well, no?
steveo_mcg 8th January 2008, 12:23 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by DXR_13KE
we kind of need it now.... not latter.....

Plenty of co2 in the air, will be for generations. We need this tech now true, but we will still need it later, perhaps more so than now.
Journeyer 8th January 2008, 12:25 Quote
This is just fantastic.

Anyone here know the Greg Mandell novels by Peter F. Hamilton?
In one of the books, can't remember which one at the moment, he tells about a no-exhaust solution put on vehicles with internal combustion engines. These devices take all the exhaust gases and store them in pressure tanks to be converted back to liquid hydrocarbons at a later date. It sounded like an incredible system, fully plausible, and now I read this. Oh it's a brave new world alright.
I've always said that the boundaries between science-fiction and science-fact is just a matter of time and imagination.
Excellent.
Journeyer 8th January 2008, 12:30 Quote
Ops. Forgot the 't' in combustion in my previous comment. My apologies.
Jordan Wise 8th January 2008, 12:38 Quote
err, hate to bring a downer on the whole green stuff, but isn't carbon monoxide the extremely poisonous, invisible WORST kind of car exhaust that's also better than CO2 at warming up the globe? Why would anyone want to make that? The best idea so far for getting fuel back from the air is growing sugar plants imo, as not only do you take nasty co2 out but you get loads of oxygen and some of the cleaner combustables as products (which also work in cars, deisel engines can run on vegetable oil perfectly at 10p per litre)
Freedom 8th January 2008, 12:52 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jordan Wise
err, hate to bring a downer on the whole green stuff, but isn't carbon monoxide the extremely poisonous, invisible WORST kind of car exhaust that's also better than CO2 at warming up the globe? Why would anyone want to make that? The best idea so far for getting fuel back from the air is growing sugar plants imo, as not only do you take nasty co2 out but you get loads of oxygen and some of the cleaner combustables as products (which also work in cars, deisel engines can run on vegetable oil perfectly at 10p per litre)

If you read the article properly you've have read that they were going to take the CO and turn it into new petrol chemicals. Vegetable oil is not carbon neutral it fact there a growing research that shows that it could worse for than the planet than fossil fuels.
pdf27 8th January 2008, 13:09 Quote
Ummm.... one really big problem with this. How are you going to capture the exhaust gases? It won't work on atmospheric air because CO2 is IIRC something like .03 percent of the air, and there's no point in designing a portable version because you may as well just power the car from solar power directly (same point applies to power stations). About the only use I can think of for it is as an alternative to carbon sequestration for chemical/industrial processes where burning Carbon is inevitable (cement kilns, blast furnaces, etc.), and possibly as a way of generating synthetic fuels in the future from sequestrated CO2 - but only if atmospheric CO2 levels have dropped significantly and it is considered safe to vent the sequestrated CO2.
steveo_mcg 8th January 2008, 14:01 Quote
I think its designed to run from coal fired power stations which generate huge amounts of co2 and generate much more power per sq meter than solar also they can run at night... So you run your cheap coal power station all day store the gases and proccess them when it sunny sell the syth fuel to pay for the device then sell your carbon credits and your making money from both ends.
/toddles off to buy a few coal power stations.
Hugo 8th January 2008, 14:30 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gareth Halfacree
No, but I *am* from the UK. According to my copy of the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

boffin
noun [C] MAINLY UK INFORMAL
a scientist who is considered to know a lot about science and not to be interested in other things:
a technical/computer boffin

I'd say that Mr. Diver fits that description pretty well, no?

Damn right - boffin is exactly the right word to use in this context!

Very cool, interesting the news story to by the way; keep it up Gareth!
Icy EyeG 8th January 2008, 15:23 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Icy EyeG
Call me crazy, but it would be nice that when this technology becomes mainstream, the chip factories could capture the carbon within the carbon dioxide to use as a raw material...

Maybe, just maybe I'm being too crazy... :o

I guess I wasn't so crazy... I had no idea that this technology existed. :o
specofdust 8th January 2008, 15:35 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gareth Halfacree
No, but I *am* from the UK. According to my copy of the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

boffin
noun [C] MAINLY UK INFORMAL
a scientist who is considered to know a lot about science and not to be interested in other things:
a technical/computer boffin

I'd say that Mr. Diver fits that description pretty well, no?

True enough. You could probably also say that he fits the definition of "dude", but you wouldn't write "dude readies...". Boffins is very The Sun in style. It doesn't really tell us anything, and it does it in an (imo) slightly faux-prole and colloquial manner. Fair enough I guess, if that's the direction Bit wants to head. But communicating info with as little bias, editorial implication, and simplification as possible would be my preferred direction.

As for the story, this is a fairly interested progression, but one without any end as of yet. All they've really managed to do is make CO so far, which although admittedly an important step, is hardly useful in that state given it's intense toxicity to humans. Whether they can find ways of turning CO into actual fuel without using more energy than they recieve from the finished product will be the important point, I think.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Steveo
So you run your cheap coal power station all day store the gases and proccess them when it sunny sell the syth fuel to pay for the device then sell your carbon credits and your making money from both ends.

So that's China's CO2 problem solved then - since they're heading for champion of the world at having dirty coal-fired power plants.

My faith still lies in nuclear. A nuclear and hydrogen economy may not be in action, but it's certainly so far the most promising replacement for our massively fossil fuel based economies. I think if more people were aware how much oil prices are going to be increasing in the next 20-50 years, and how totaly our entire civilisation is dependant on oil for it's existance - they'd be complaining about governments not building nuclear power plants.
Scootiep 8th January 2008, 15:36 Quote
Quote:
I've always said that the boundaries between science-fiction and science-fact is just a matter of time and imagination.

Then stop wasting time and get to work on my Star Trek Transporters!:D
[USRF]Obiwan 8th January 2008, 16:56 Quote
what about a c02 to air generator. Solves alot of problems i think. Even so, do you know you can buy a mini-nuclear-reactor that is putting out 200KW for 40 years. You are then totaly independent of your local energysuplier and can deliver energy fotr your whole block.
specofdust 8th January 2008, 17:09 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by [USRF]Obiwan
what about a c02 to air generator. Solves alot of problems i think. Even so, do you know you can buy a mini-nuclear-reactor that is putting out 200KW for 40 years. You are then totaly independent of your local energysuplier and can deliver energy fotr your whole block.

Assuming you mean CO2 to O2 (oxygen), there are already billions of those generators all over the world.
steveo_mcg 8th January 2008, 17:11 Quote
Yeah but you have to wait on them to grow, every one knows biotech is flaky at best.
mrplow 8th January 2008, 17:14 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by specofdust
Assuming you mean CO2 to O2 (oxygen), there are already billions of those generators all over the world.

Hehehe!
sotu1 8th January 2008, 17:22 Quote
yay! tech to save our planet!
pdf27 8th January 2008, 18:55 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by steveo_mcg
So you run your cheap coal power station all day store the gases and proccess them when it sunny sell the syth fuel to pay for the device then sell your carbon credits and your making money from both ends.
Doesn't make sense to do that. You're better off using the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert the coal to hydrocarbon fuel, and use the solar energy directly to generate energy.
genesisofthesith 8th January 2008, 19:59 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by specofdust
Assuming you mean CO2 to O2 (oxygen), there are already billions of those generators all over the world.

Indeed. And as soon as people realise that cutting down forest land to grow biofuels is counter productive the better.
steveo_mcg 8th January 2008, 20:13 Quote
Fischer Tropsch requires huge amounts of water, many countries don't have the spare water. China is depleting the water supply in many areas using this tech. KW/SQM coal is much better than solar and it works what ever the weather, besides all that this device doesn't generate electricity its a solar furnace only. Have a look at the article, this system means you have the best of both systems. Remember we don't have infrastructure for large scale solar, we do for coal so while it may seem great just to switch to solar but honestly it isn't going to happen in the next 30 years this way increases the efficiency of what we have now

http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/01/S2P
proxess 8th January 2008, 21:35 Quote
i used to be a boff in the uk... then i came to portugal and its crappy teaching system, now i'm just a slave to the system.
specofdust 8th January 2008, 21:47 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by steveo_mcg
Fischer Tropsch requires huge amounts of water, many countries don't have the spare water. China is depleting the water supply in many areas using this tech. KW/SQM coal is much better than solar and it works what ever the weather, besides all that this device doesn't generate electricity its a solar furnace only. Have a look at the article, this system means you have the best of both systems. Remember we don't have infrastructure for large scale solar, we do for coal so while it may seem great just to switch to solar but honestly it isn't going to happen in the next 30 years this way increases the efficiency of what we have now

http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/01/S2P

The Fisher Tropsch method is only going to create problems when water is taken from underground resovoirs though, and that's just accellerating an already worldwide issue that needs solving. So long as there are suitable basin's and suchlike that are surface based, capturing sufficient rainfall to water a population shouldn't be too much of a problem. Overall though, if you use water to make hydrocarbons, when you burn those hydrocarbons you get your water back. Just like a hydrogen economy, the water part is essentially renewable.

As for going over to coal, I think you're nuts tbh dude. We can switch to coal, and along with the rest of the world use the stuff up within 200-300 years, but why not save the coal for transformation into oil like substances that we require and havn't yet got substitutes for, and use nuclear energy for power. It's cleaner, it's a long term solution, and it's going to be the eventual solution whether we move to coal now or not. The way I figure it, the sooner the world moves to a nuclear power economy, with the resultant heavy research into the industry and more satisfactory solutions to waste thereof - the better.

What does KW/SQM stand for, out of interest?
steveo_mcg 8th January 2008, 23:01 Quote
An out of my arse unit for kilowatts per square meter.
I see what you mean about saving coal for better uses. However the water thing would be problem i'll try and find some links tomorrow at work but basically china has suspended any new projects on both bio ethanol and CTO (coal to oil) in large parts of the country. Parts of the country become net exporters of water and many of them can't afford to be.

Personally i think tech like this is generally a good thing to supplement our energy sources not replace them. If we have to build new power plants best to maximize the energy released from the fuel source, using the co2 for extending the life of oil fields is also something which we could do more of here.
specofdust 8th January 2008, 23:27 Quote
Oh, right. kWm^2, or kW/m2 would probably be a better way of doing it :D

As you say, water is a big problem, but it's going to be a big problem in 30 years time anyway. We humey's have been relying on vast underground repositories of water which have taken thousands (or much more in some cases) of years to build up. We're exhausting them in decades. I believe something ridiculous like 90% of all of our water comes from underground resovoirs. Now some of these will be being refilled, but many aren't. Once they all run out, we're stuck using surface water or desalinated water (which requires tonnes of power...another reason for my hearty endorsement of nukes). Water is gonna be a big problem whether we use lots now or not. Because just like oil, we're using what are in a way finite supplies much much faster than they're being replenished.
Bungle 8th January 2008, 23:39 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by specofdust
Oh, right. kWm^2, or kW/m2 would probably be a better way of doing it :D

As you say, water is a big problem, but it's going to be a big problem in 30 years time anyway. We humey's have been relying on vast underground repositories of water which have taken thousands (or much more in some cases) of years to build up. We're exhausting them in decades. I believe something ridiculous like 90% of all of our water comes from underground resovoirs. Now some of these will be being refilled, but many aren't. Once they all run out, we're stuck using surface water or desalinated water (which requires tonnes of power...another reason for my hearty endorsement of nukes). Water is gonna be a big problem whether we use lots now or not. Because just like oil, we're using what are in a way finite supplies much much faster than they're being replenished.
Breakout your Stillsuit the Arrakis days are coming.
DXR_13KE 8th January 2008, 23:46 Quote
my future car will be a plugin and if i can i will cover my house with solar panels... we have tons of sun here......
The_Beast 9th January 2008, 00:45 Quote
that's pretty cool
NoahFuLing 9th January 2008, 04:04 Quote
Sunlight and air... sounds a lot like the other mythical fuel we've been promised before... Rainbows and unicorn farts!

Seriously though, this is a great idea. Even though solar is becoming more and more efficient, especially in less than 100% perpendicular sunlight, as well as more durable, we definitely need something to counteract the massive quantities of CO2 we're pumping out. Since the US government is so far in the pocket of the oil companies, all we can do is alleviate the symptoms, not reform the causes.
Journeyer 9th January 2008, 07:46 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Scootiep
Then stop wasting time and get to work on my Star Trek Transporters!:D

B)
There are already people working on that, however there is the small issue of the Heisenberg stabiliser. Maybe the combined genius here at bit-tech can come up with something. Of course, we'd need a dilithium core and a matter/anti-matter reaction chamber, but those are small fish I wager.

On a more serious note though; I read somewhere, might have been scientific american, that they have now reached the point where they are able to teleport molecules over distances of a few feet. I'll do some research on this - been a while since I read up on teleportation.
steveo_mcg 9th January 2008, 09:18 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by specofdust
Oh, right. kWm^2, or kW/m2 would probably be a better way of doing it :D
Noted ;)
[USRF]Obiwan 9th January 2008, 09:30 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by specofdust
Assuming you mean CO2 to O2 (oxygen), there are already billions of those generators all over the world.

If you mean trees, thats ok, But a lot of industrial powerplants exhaust co2 by the milions. In my country they are storing the exhaust into the ground where natural gasses used to be (the gas is used to power the powerplants). A better way should be to redirect this enormous underground co2 fields into a co2>oxygen generator. We are then wasting natural sources still. But at least we puting back fresh air into the skys.
specofdust 9th January 2008, 16:35 Quote
Quote:
If you mean trees, thats ok, But a lot of industrial powerplants exhaust co2 by the milions. In my country they are storing the exhaust into the ground where natural gasses used to be (the gas is used to power the powerplants). A better way should be to redirect this enormous underground co2 fields into a co2>oxygen generator. We are then wasting natural sources still. But at least we puting back fresh air into the skys.

And how do you propose we power said CO2 > O2 generator? With more CO2 producing power? Underground storage in depleted natural gas resoviors is a good way of storing CO2 imo, the idea that we should somehow attempt to turn all the CO2 back into O2 may chime nicely with lots of people, but I very much doubt it'll happen in the near future.
pdf27 10th January 2008, 19:20 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by [USRF]Obiwan
A better way should be to redirect this enormous underground co2 fields into a co2>oxygen generator. We are then wasting natural sources still. But at least we puting back fresh air into the skys.
You do realise that doing so would take about 3 times the energy that you generated from burning the coal in the first place? Again, unless you have unlimited energy supplies it makes no sense whatsoever to do anything but leave the CO2 there and use the solar energy to generate eletricity.
[USRF]Obiwan 11th January 2008, 09:21 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by pdf27
You do realise that doing so would take about 3 times the energy that you generated from burning the coal in the first place?

Well The c02 is forced into the ground, its sits there under presure. So opening a release valve would force the co2 out of it. So not much energy is needed to get it out the ground again, and how do you know it would take 3 times the energy to exchange co2 to O2. I dont even know if it is posible to do this, and what kind of technology is needed to make it work. So i dont know how much energy it takes.
pdf27 11th January 2008, 14:22 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by [USRF]Obiwan
So not much energy is needed to get it out the ground again, and how do you know it would take 3 times the energy to exchange co2 to O2. I dont even know if it is posible to do this, and what kind of technology is needed to make it work. So i dont know how much energy it takes.
Peak efficiency for burning coal is ~45%, or ~58% for oil/gas. That's the Carnot efficiency limit - a very hard ceiling you can't break through without either going to fuel cells or improved metallurgy.
Cracking molecules like CO2 back to their constituent parts again is even less efficient - for instance from memory electrolysis of water is only about 60% efficient, and that's a relatively simple job. Put the two efficiencies together and you're only recovering about 30% of the energy that went in in the first place. Solar furnaces can manage about 60% energy efficiency right off the bat.
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