Researchers and startups are working out how petrol-fuelled vehicles and air conditioners can suck carbon dioxide out of the air to produce fuel.
Last year, petrol-fuelled transport emitted 102 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in Australia, prompting calls for more electric- or hydrogen-powered alternatives.
A tech startup in Silicon Valley is working on a way to keep petrol as part of the fuel-mix of the future by sourcing it from atmospheric carbon in order to offset emissions.
The startup is named for Prometheus, the Titan from Greek mythology who gave humans the gift of fire. According to founder and CEO Rob McGinnis, Prometheus is developing a machine that will trap and convert more carbon from the surrounding air into fuel for a car, achieving carbon neutrality.
McGinnis drives a VW Golf, which he eventually hopes to fuel with his air-sourced petrol.
“I used to drive a Tesla Roadster, but now I’m making gasoline cool again,” he told Bloomberg.
Can we fuel cars with thin air?
McGinnis is not lacking in creativity and lateral thinking. While studying for a Bachelor of Arts in theatre, he invented an ammonia-carbon dioxide forward osmosis desalination process. This led to a PhD in environmental engineering and the establishment of his first startup, Oasys Water.
His second startup, Mattershift, used carbon nanotubes to separate chemicals into their molecular components. Because the nanotubes allowed carbon to be separated in liquid form, McGinnis’ method undercut the cost of other separation technologies.
McGinnis’ six-foot tall carbon-to-fuel machine, which will use carbon nanotubes to perform its magic, was displayed at venture capital investor Y Combinator’s demo-day in March. The inventor told Bloomberg that it had not yet achieved the task of producing petrol from atmospheric carbon, as it had only been completed in the days before this unveiling.
But McGinnis’ machine impressed Y Combinator enough to attract seed funding as part of a push to remove carbon from the air and convert it to other products.
“[These projects] might seem like moonshots now, but our goal is to try to come up with technically feasible solutions at realistic costs,” said Y Combinator CEO Sam Altman in a blog post.
Carbon neutral cooling
Researchers at Canada’s University of Toronto are also looking at how to produce fuel from atmospheric carbon and allow us to keep cool in rising temperatures without adding to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the issue.
In a paper recently published in Nature Communications, Professors Roland Dittmeyer and Geoffrey Ozin propose that air conditioning units could be retrofitted with devices that convert carbon dioxide from the air into synthetic fuel.
The oil produced could then be stored in private ‘oil wells’ to be used by the owner, and any excess sold to a new ‘renewable oil grid’.
“If our vision of fuel-generating air conditioning systems were to be applied at a global scale, it could enable the production and sale of synthetic fuels through an equitable distributed social scheme similar to the generation of renewable electricity from household solar panels,” Ozin said in a statement.
Carbon capture technologies won’t remove the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but removing carbon from the atmosphere has been flagged by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as having “considerable” potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming.
While McGinnis and Ozin are in the early stages of developing their carbon-busting ideas, their innovative spirit could be a step in the right direction.