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UK engineers create petrol from air

October 15, 2012

Landmark London conference to discuss ‘revolutionary’ air capture technology

AFS petrolAir capture technology, which scrubs carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air, has the potential to become a ‘game-changer’ in the battle against climate change, and British engineers are at the forefront of making it a reality, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said today.

The technology will be the subject of a conference – the first of its kind – to be held at the Institution’s London headquarters on Tuesday 16 October.

Development of the technology has accelerated over the past few years, and one small British firm has become the first company in the world to demonstrate CO2 air capture as a viable industrial prospect. Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS), based in Stockton-on-Tees, is using air capture to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

AFS recently created its first litres of fuel at the company’s Stockton demonstrator plant. The process works as follows:

  • Air is blown into a tower containing a mist of sodium hydroxide which reacts with the carbon dioxide in the air, forming sodium carbonate. Electricity is then passed through the sodium carbonate to release the carbon dioxide, which is stored.
  • A dehumidifier in the tower condenses water from the air. The water is then split into hydrogen and oxygen using an electric current.
  • The carbon dioxide and hydrogen are reacted together to create Syngas, which is then processed to form methanol.
  • The methanol is passed through a gasoline fuel reactor, creating petrol.

The fuel produced can be used in any regular petrol tank and, if renewable energy is used to provide the electricity, the process and end product are completely carbon neutral.

This clean fuel is a direct drop-in replacement fuel for existing vehicles and infrastructure. It can also be used to store intermittent ‘wrong-time’ or stranded ‘wrong-place’ energy from renewable sources and has many advantages over biofuels when blended with conventional petrol – a feature that has already attracted the attention of the motorsport industry. 

Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy & Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said:

“Air capture technology ultimately has the potential to become a game-changer in our quest to avoid dangerous climate change. What was just a smart idea in the minds of a handful of academics a few years ago is now a proven, engineered method for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making a useful product. The beauty of petrol from air is that you are effectively recycling CO2 and avoiding further transport emissions.

“While the major recent research advances have largely been made in the US and Canada, it is hugely encouraging that it is British engineers and entrepreneurs who are taking air capture technology out of the lab and using it to create a product. This is particularly poignant given that so much of the world’s fossil fuel-based industrial economy of today has its origins in great British engineering innovation from the North East.

“What we need now is the financial and political support to help turn this revolutionary demonstration into a large-scale industrial solution that could make sustainable products, remove and store CO2 from point sources or the atmosphere and set the international carbon price to drive innovation across all clean technologies.”

David Still, Chairman of Air Fuel Synthesis, said:

“We are now ready to build the first commercial Air Fuel Synthesis production plant making carbon-neutral petrol.  The technology can add to new or existing renewable energy projects, especially where the energy is stranded;  where  there is  a premium for secure liquid  fuels for existing vehicles;  or for reducing carbon emissions.  Demand for specialist high quality low-carbon fuels in motorsports offers a particularly attractive early niche market for investors.

“Further investors and partners will enable us to rapidly commercialise our technologies  and help customers address  fossil oil price volatility and supply constraints as well as the implications of carbon-driven climate change.“

Tuesday’s conference, Air Capture: Developing Technologies for Carbon Recycling and Negative Emissions will feature a presentation by Peter Harrison, CEO of Air Fuel Synthesis as well as presentations from some of the world’s leading specialists in air capture technology. Highlights include:

  • 9.55am: Keynote presentation: Energy security, economic development and global warming: addressing short and long term challenges
    Professor Graciela Chichilnisky, Co-founder and Managing Director, Global Thermostat
  • 10.20am: Outdoor prototype results for direct atmospheric capture of carbon dioxide
    Mr Geoffrey Holmes, Research Scientist, Carbon Engineering Ltd (CE)
  • 10.45am: Lessons learned on the journey from CO2 to aviation fuel
    Peter Harrison, CEO, Air Fuel Synthesis Ltd
  • 3.30pm: CO2 irrigation : improving the water use efficiency of biomass production by using dilute CO2
    Mr Tim Kruger, James Martin Fellow, Oxford Geoengineering Programme, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
  • 3.55pm: Biomass-enhanced CCS: a scalable solution to capture CO2 from the atmosphere
    Dr Paul Fennell, Senior Lecturer, Imperial College London


  1. 8 Tyron 19 Oct
    this is just not a game changer it is the way forward for the human race. In my mind we as a human race are behind in time in terms of development as a 21 century community. We have been destroying our planet for decades drilling, fracking and other methods. Im not an expert but this will clean our air and even tho we putting back CO2 when we re-burn the fuel in effect we will stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere as it a cycle of manufacture.There is still a long way with development but Governments should look into investing money into this, the conspiracy theory it will end west vs east in terms of peace of mind, shift power from countries and the oil companies where there wealth is based on there oil reserve. My opinion forget about attracting interest in oil companies in a sense governments should stick there two fingers up at them and develop self sustaining solution to the fuel market in there  country for consumers, there people. This is the first step to sustainable human race.

  2. 7 (Engr.) Mahbub Morshed Alam 20 Oct
    I appreciate concerned UK Engineers who created Petrol from Air and are at the forefront of making it a reality. We shall be waiting for its commercial production.

    (Engr.) Mahbub Morshed Alam
  3. 6 Will Spencer 20 Oct
    This technology could also be a carbon sink by using surplus petrol as a carbon source to grow biomass instead of fueling vehicles.  One example might be to identify nitrogen fixing bacteria  that utilize petrol as a carbon source and using the recovered biomass as a fertilizer.  The possibilities are definitely exciting.  Good job!
  4. 5 komentator 23 Oct
    The technology was developed in Germany more than 90 years ago. The carbon source was coal and hydrogen comes from water vapours and the process was known as Fischer-Tropsch reaction (basically CO + H2) of water-gas.

    More information could be find on Wiki. As you see, instead of methanol, the main reaction products are methane (30%) and short alkans and alkenes, alcohols etc.).

    Carbon dioxide reuse

    In 2009, chemists working for the U.S. Navy investigated a modified Fischer–Tropsch process for generating fuels. When hydrogen was combined with the carbon dioxide over a cobalt-based catalyst, the reaction produced mostly methane gas. However, the use of an iron-based catalyst reduced methane production to 30 per cent with the rest being predominantly short-chain, unsaturated hydrocarbons [27] The introduction of ceria to the catalyst's support, functioning as a reverse water gas shift catalyst, furthermore increased the yield of the reaction.[28] The short chain hydrocarbons were successfully upgraded to liquid fuels over solid acid catalysts, such as zeolites.

  5. 4 Sam Adeoye 23 Oct
    This is a great breakthrough towards achieving green-energy system. Exceptionally brilliant ideas!
  6. 3 BCM CEng MIMechE 23 Oct
    It amazes me the IMechE is promoting this. I would be very interested to see some Energy calculations for this process to show just how inefficient and uneconomical it really is. 
    The cost and rate of production will never make this viable. The aim after 2 years is to build a plant capable of producing 1 tonne of petrol a day? So about 1400 litres, or enough to fill 20 cars. I would suggest the money used for this venture would be better spend on some engineering education for those who think this is a 'game changer'.
  7. 2 Albert 05 Feb
    it seems that lot of engineers have lost their mind in the search for an impossible solution of a no problem. considering the energy we do use does not came for free from another galaxy but it generated mostly burning fossil fuels, this idea is a nice opportunity to produce more CO2 in the big picture than the CO2 removed with huge costs for the tax payers and at the same time mining more oil, coal and gas. if there is a top ten of the stupid ideas, this is possibly the best. 
  8. 1 Sonja 05 Feb
    Who is funding this research?? And please note the current price of CO2 in EU, approaching zero unless teh  EU Commission fiddles a bit more. The whole pricing of 'carbon' system may well collapse innear future, as is the underlying theory of  catastrophic climate change caused by CO2. (Several government may  like the idea a bit longer, carbon taxes are popular there inorder to reduce deficits.) Another  ice age is just as likely, or even more so.

    What is most  depressing about  several of the enthusiastic comments above is the lack of basic knowledge they illustrate. You can't capture anything without using  some energy in the first place, and a gas....

    Disllusioned with British (research) engineers

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