Friday, March 14, 2008

CO2 to Gasoline

While I still have some lingering doubts regarding the certainty and extent of anthropogenic Global Warming and its implications, I found this NY Times article to be interesting: Scientists Would Turn Greenhouse Gas Into Gasoline.

Essentially, they extract CO2 from the air and use it to create hydrocarbon chains from methane to gasoline and jet fuel. In a sense, they seem to be making a case for a sustainable hydrocarbon fuel economy that would be compatible with the existing infrastructure.

While this is not a new idea, Martin and Kubic claim to have made significant progress in making the process more efficient such that the consumer cost may be $4.60/gal or even $3.40/gal with some (presumably foreseeable) technological advances. Their Green Freedom (pdf) system proposes the use of a nuclear reactor to provide the energy required for this conversion, though any source would do.

The question seems to be, how efficient is the energy conversion to gasoline as compared to other similarly feasible and safe fuels or storage? Relatedly, is gasoline inherently unhealthy (e.g. cancer, respiratory diseases)? If so, what alternatives are safer, healthier, and feasible?

It seems to me that this would also have significant implications for our foreign dependence upon oil and create a sort of upper limit on the price of oil world wide.

This development is also notable as an alternative to present solutions to removing CO2 from the atmosphere, such as burying it (Michigan well gets carbon dioxide out of air, into ground).

Hat tip to Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy.



MamasBoy said...

Capturing the CO2 from the flues of coal fired power plants has also been proposed. (warning, pdf document)

I like these ideas, but it seems they will only work if gasoline is prices remain consistently high. I'm not convinced that will be the case. While continued large scale investment would be prudent, we have to ask what we will do if gas prices drop to $1.50/gallon after these technologies succeed (or almost succeed). Are we willing as a society to pay $3.50/gal if gas can be had at $2.00/gal.


Kevin said...


Thanks for the links. The brief NPR audio was interesting and I'm (hopefully) understanding the current high oil prices a bit better after some further studying.

I agree that gasoline prices should be dropping and that no one will pay $3.50/gal for synfuel if you can get oilfuel for $2.00/gal. Ultimately, it will have to be an economic decision as to when or if the investment becomes worthwhile.

For good or bad, I also suspect that the government will get involved with subsidies, if not for CO2 AGW concerns, then to reduce instability and foreign dependence.

The final comment on the Volokh thread seems to make a decent argument that the conversion is not presently worthwhile, though I unfortunately do not know enough to check his numbers and he has not provided external support. I'm also not sure if he has taken into full account the cost of replacing our current infrastructure.

But perhaps synfuel could serve as stopgap as the infrastructure evolves, in which case the window for investment and viability may be rather narrow.


Jeff said...

Theproblem with most fuel supplies is not the production cost but the amount of TAX the government attacehs to the fuel supply... Even at $120/barrel, how do you justify $4 gasoline? Because the Taxes pay for ROADS (really?) and Law Enforcement (really? then why do traffic tickets charged $84 for a filing fee?).... If there is a way to make money off of the process and then blame "big industry" for any issues, it will happen, cost effective or not.

Kevin said...

Welcome, Jeff, and thanks for your comment.

I'm not sure how much markup is reasonable for converting various crude oils to gasoline. And gasoline taxes may very well be out of line, for which we could use some transparency and accountability.

I don't know if Martin and Kubics estimates include the usual tax on gasoline. I'd guess not.

The government certainly has a lot of power over this process.