Among the many problems presented by using fossil fuels such as petroleum, one of the more pressing issues is their limited and rapidly decreasing supply. Unfortunately, it would take thousands of years of organic matter decomposing and compressing under layers of the Earth to replenish the supply in the manner in which it was first made, and that’s an unlikely business.

But now it’s been reported that a professor from Kyoto University and his team have found a way to create petroleum efficiently and cheaply. Their method uses no energy-consuming high pressures or temperatures and only requires water, petroleum, and carbon dioxide. As a result, it can be done so cheaply that KTV reported 100 yen (US$0.83) of oil can be synthesized using only 3 yen ($0.02) worth of electricity.

It all seems to good to be true, and in fact it may not be true. With published peer-reviewed studies, mysterious television appearances, and lack of mainstream media coverage. We honestly can’t figure out is this amazing breakthrough or not. And neither can anyone else as science enthusiasts take to Twitter to find answers.

■ The Process

Attempts at synthesizing oil have been made before but the biggest challenge was the high levels of energy required to make the hydrocarbons (chains of hydrogen and carbon) which we need for combustion. For example, one company in Iceland uses the extreme temperatures and pressures of volcanoes to create these hydrocarbons from CO2. Although effective it only works in very specific environmental and economic conditions.

However, Professor Tadayuki Imanaka’s technique can be done anywhere with very little energy and just a few pieces of specialized equipment. The first step involves creating an amount of activated water. This is made with nanobubbles (very, very small bubbles) of oxygen in electrolysed water under UV light along with a catalyst.

Then petroleum is mixed in with the activated water. As the saying goes, oil and water don’t mix so it needs some substantial shaking to get an emulsion. While the oil and water are blending together a substance containing CO2 is added to the mix.

After when the mixture settles and separates again the amount of water is decreased but the amount of petroleum is increased. Imanaka says that the amount of increase depends on the type of oil used such as kerosene or light oil, but ranges from 5 to 10 percent.

■ The potential

Imanaka is confident that this method is effective and hopes a system of mass production can be developed as early as next year. After that his synthetic oil can be made for use in the market in large and cheap quantities.

He also claims this oil will be cleaner burning since it doesn’t release certain greenhouse gases that contain sulfur and nitrogen like natural crude oil does. Furthermore, synthesizing Imanaka’s oil would require collecting and using carbon dioxide which could help in reducing its impact on the environment as well.

This form of petroleum does have some obvious drawbacks. Firstly it requires water which also isn’t a limitless resource. And it is still oil which does result in pollution when burned for energy.

On the other hand, if successful, Imanaka’s oil could completely change the landscape of oil production. Controversial methods of extraction like oil sands or fracking would no longer be as economically attractive. Also, since this oil could be produced anywhere the risk of spills in the ocean from drilling or transporting could be reduced.

It would also level the playing field economically, but not too drastically. Every country would be able to produce their own oil with much less reliance on foreign sources. However, since petroleum is required to make more of this synthetic oil, those nations with existing stocks would still have an advantage in its production.

It certainly has the potential to be a game-changer but whether or not Imanaka’s oil is truly as efficient as he claims remains to be seen. In fact, outside of a few scant reports very little of this potentially ground breaking procedure can be seen at all.

■ The rug pulled out?

Online rumors are swirling over whether this announcement is real at all. There seem to be compelling facts on both sides of the debate as to whether this is real or some kind of mistake.

Starting with the fundamentals, Tadayuki Imanaka is real and works out of the Environmental Biotechnology Lab at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. He has worked on projects to create petroleum using bacteria as well as experiments using nanobubbles. However, nowhere on the Ritsumeikan website does it mention this particular research, nor is there any kind of press release from the school to be found.

▼ “I can’t figure out if this article is accurate or not. Can anyone post a link to a press release or article?”
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And yet in the original reports there is a photo of what appears to be a televised press conference with Imanaka speaking in front of Kyoto University emblems while the text “Using CO2 gas and water to make petroleum?” is superimposed on the TV screen.

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To make matters weirder, the original reports from September 18 that have featured this photo have since been taken down. They can still be access through Google’s cache function, however. Also, even though this story came out way back in mid-September, there has been no mention of it in any of Japan’s major news outlets such as Asahi, Yomiuri, or NHK.

Generally, at this point I’d assume that this was some sort of mistake or hoax. However, the actual study by Imanaka exists in Chemistry Letters, a peer-reviewed journal by the Chemical Society of Japan.

So what is going on here? It’s difficult to say for sure, but based on what we know I’d guess that some news agencies may have jumped the gun a little on how far along Imanaka’s research is in this area. Perhaps more work is needed to determine the stability and performance of this synthetic petroleum. The other news agencies are likely waiting for something more concrete to print, especially since many may still be licking their wounds of embarrassment after trumpeting the STAP cell breakthrough which turned out to be one of the worst scandals of 2014…and there were some doozies that year.

Source: KTV (Cached), ABC News (Cached), Togetter, Itai News , Ritsumeikan University, J-Stage Chemistry Letters – An efficient way of producing fuel hydrocarbon from CO2 and activated water
Top image: Wikipedia/Trevor MacInnis (edited by RocketNews24)