A fuel that consumes the CO2 it produces to make more of itself.

As technology advances, so do the opportunities to make synthetic versions of unsustainable materials. Synthetic leather has been around for a while and synthetic sweeteners frequently hit the market. Even ways to make synthetic fuel have been around for a century, but not quite like the way being tested out in Osaka recently.

From 11 to 17 January, the Demonstration Business Promotion Team Osaka along with Sustainable Energy Inc. ran trials on a synthetic fuel produced from water and carbon dioxide present in the air. If successful, this could become the first carbon-based and truly carbon-neutral fuel of its kind.

The idea may sound pretty wild at first, but all the basic elements needed for fuels like gasoline are right there in the water and air: hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. The hard part is just getting all those atoms into the right places cheaply and quickly.

Sustainable Energy does this by first using a photocatalyst to create what they call “radical water” from light and CO2 in the air. Radical water is water that contains radicals, which are molecules with unbound electrons that are more conducive to chemical reactions.

Next a “seed fuel” is added to the radical water which reacts with the CO2 to continuously produce more of the same type of fuel. For example, if kerosene is added then more synthetic kerosene will be made. The synthetic fuel itself can also be used as a seed fuel in future production, eliminating the need for fossil fuels once started.

▼ A diagram illustrating the basic process

Since this synthetic fuel behaves like the natural fuel it is based on, it too will release carbon dioxide into the air. However, since it is also made from carbon dioxide in the air, it could be possible to achieve a balance. Since the main energy source to drive the chemical reaction appears to be sunlight, this balance doesn’t seem out of the question.

The tests carried out at Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park in Osaka City used synthetic fuel made by this process to power a generator which was used to charge an electric vehicle. The purpose was to measure both the emission of other air pollutants such as sulfur oxides and the stability of power generation from this fuel. Using this data production of the fuel as well as equipment to make use of it can be further developed.

▼ A news report on the tests

Such a fuel seems too good to be true, and as such there were many mixed feelings about it online. Some where cautiously optimistic while others doubted this synthetic fuel’s ability to succeed or outpace other alternatives such as fuel cells.

“I don’t know…”
“Are they trying to be alchemists in Osaka?”
“I think just running an engine on water alone is more practical.”
“We’re better off using crops like corn to get fuel.”
“I doubt they can make it so the energy to produce is less than the energy it creates.”
“There’s not enough CO2 in the air to make a suitable amount of fuel.”
“This is basically a different kind of solar power, isn’t it?”

It would seem that a lot of the criticism directed at this method is under the assumption that the process is decided and ready for use rather than still in development. Clearly there are major hurdles such as how to efficiently collect enough pure CO2 from the air to produce the fuel or determining if the whole system is any better then current solar panels in the end.

If it does work then we may all be a lot better off from it, but even if it doesn’t the lessons learnt from tests like this might lead to something else further down the road.

Source: Osaka City, Sustainable Energy, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert image: Osaka City
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