Green Freedom: Turning Greenhouse Gas Into Gasoline ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

The award for most bizarre piece of nuclear power advocacy I've seen in a while goes to this proposal from some scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory reported on by the New York Times - constructing nuclear power plants to power the conversion of CO2 into petrol. Of course, you could use the nuclear power for electric vehciles instead, and use less than 20% of the energy this process requires. Or you could just skip the nuclear option entirely and plug your electirc vehicles into a clean energy grid instead (hat tip Engineer Poet).

If two scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are correct, people will still be driving gasoline-powered cars 50 years from now, churning out heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — and yet that carbon dioxide will not contribute to global warming. In a proposal by two scientists, vehicle emissions would no longer contribute to global warming.

The scientists, F. Jeffrey Martin and William L. Kubic Jr., are proposing a concept, which they have patriotically named Green Freedom, for removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it back into gasoline.

The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.

This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels. The closed cycle — equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed — would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.

Although they have not yet built a synthetic fuel factory, or even a small prototype, the scientists say it is all based on existing technology. “Everything in the concept has been built, is operating or has a close cousin that is operating,” Dr. Martin said.

The Los Alamos proposal does not violate any laws of physics, and other scientists, like George A. Olah, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the University of Southern California, and Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University, have independently suggested similar ideas. Dr. Martin said he and Dr. Kubic had worked out their concept in more detail than previous proposals.

There is, however, a major caveat that explains why no one has built a carbon-dioxide-to-gasoline factory: it requires a great deal of energy.

To deal with that problem, the Los Alamos scientists say they have developed a number of innovations, including a new electrochemical process for detaching the carbon dioxide after it has been absorbed into the potassium carbonate solution. The process has been tested in Dr. Kubic’s garage, in a simple apparatus that looks like mutant Tupperware.

Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline on a commercial scale — say, 750,000 gallons a day — would require a dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one, the scientists say. has a report on the reborn, ex-Xerox PARC and its new focus on clean technology - including an interest in creating "liquid fuels from the air" - but using renewables rather than vast farms of nuclear power plants.
Formerly Xerox's R&D center, Silicon Valley-based PARC is using its new status as an independent business to leverage its almost 40-year history in IT, mass production, microfluidics and other scientific expertise for a variety of mostly corporate clients—unlike the government focus of other research institutes. And now, there are a number of interesting cleantech-specific initiatives underway at the sprawling hillside complex, a stone's throw from Stanford University and the VCs of famed Sand Hill Road. ...

The center's most visible cleantech-related initiative in recent years has been helping incubate solar concentrating startup SolFocus, which resided in and operated from PARC's labs until August of 2007. PARC scientists helped the company develop a second generation of its solar concentrator, which is now smaller, lighter and less expensive to make (see photos below.) PARC drew directly on its expertise in laser printing. The success of the partnership inspired PARC to institute a formal incubation program, which it calls Startup@PARC. Fledgling cleantech and other companies can leverage PARC staff and facilities in exchange for cash, royalties, equity compensation, or a combination.

We received a tour of the facility, and learned about the center's current cleantech-related projects, including:

Printing for solar PV - Gridlines on the front of most manufacturers' silicon cells for collecting current tend to be relatively wide, hiding much of the substrate beneath from the sun. PARC developed a new extrusion method for printing narrower yet taller gridlines on silicon with the same conductivity, but less "shadow".

The new technique apparently boosts the power output of a solar cell by 6 percent. "We invented the print head; we're looking at commercializing in a reasonably short timeframe," said Elrod.

LED lighting - Could PARC's optics and thermal management experience translate into differentiated designs? Researchers pursued phosphor-based solid state lighting that has proven to be 10-20 percent more efficient than LEDs, PARC claims. The technology has been developed, and the center is now interested in engaging commercial partners.

Membrane-less water filtration - A novel design inspired by years of toner manipulation through apertures has lead to what appears to be a high volume water filtration process not requiring a membrane. PARC scientists leveraged the centrifugal force of contaminants in water to direct them through an alternative path in a spiral flow. The technique requires little power, and appears to hold promise for wastewater treatment, according to PARC's Elrod.

Liquid fuels from the air - Perhaps the most ambitious project underway at PARC is an investigation into the practicality of generating liquid fuels from simply water and carbon present in the air.

PARC scientists are looking into using renewable energy to power large scale electrolysis, combining hydrogen from water with large volumes of carbon extracted from the atmosphere to produce hydrocarbon-based fuel.

Admittedly, carbon would be released back into the atmosphere when the fuels combusted, Elrod acknowledged. But using the atmosphere for carbon "transport," as described on a PARC briefing slide, would guarantee fuel could be made anywhere, even on small islands.

"This is speculative, high risk and potentially high reward," said Elrod. "We're not putting a lot of people on this; this still has to pass the sanity test. But we don't know of anyone else doing this."

Other cleantech projects underway at PARC include demand response-like adaptive control technologies for data centers and power grids, new manufacturing techniques for small form-factor fuel cells that take advantage of PARC's print head expertise, biofuel from algae and reusable paper.


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