Improving Auto Emissions With Carbon-Neutral Synthetic Fuels

September 19, 2017 - Emily Newton

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Climate change influences just about every aspect of our lives. We know carbon dioxide has one of the biggest impacts on it, and that humans are producing an obscene amount. Even without climate change as a factor, we still have plenty of issues with our current method of energy production. There are risks associated with nuclear power, including problems we can’t account for, like Japan’s Fukushima plant. Oil spills pollute the ocean and streams, and fracking for natural gas risks pollutes our water table.

Even if you aren’t convinced climate change is the reason for all these problems — though it definitely is — you should still be able to see the benefit in moving away from fossil fuels. The good news is, we have a lot more options for doing that. Right now, electric cars are a big one, but they still get their energy from the grid, which is primarily dependent on fossil fuels.

Our dependence on fossil fuels is slowly changing, but not at a speed that can help us with our most pressing problems. Switching to renewables is incredibly important, but we can also incorporate a different kind of change. Currently, most of our cars run on fuel. What would happen if we could make fuel for our cars, electric grid, airplanes and boats with zero net emissions, while still using gas the way we’re used to?

Carbon-Neutral Synthetic Fuels

It turns out this is entirely possible. We know how to create synthetic fuels, not just dig them up out of the ground. The goal, of course, is to create carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, and not just synthesize fuels while still pumping out greenhouse gases. That’s a tricky idea, though, because it means the carbon we use to create the fuel has to equal the carbon that’s put out when the fuel is burned.

Right now, creating the fuel takes a lot of energy. It’s not that difficult to make because scientists understand the process so well, but it isn’t the most efficient process, either. Synthetic fuel, or synfuel, is a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Through a series of chemical reactions known as the Fischer-Tropsch process, liquids become hydrocarbons, resulting in fuel. However, this is an enormously energy-dependent process.

The cool part about this is that it’s possible to pull carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into carbon monoxide to use for fuel. That process is more likely to result in a closed-loop system, where the synthetic fuel ends up being carbon-neutral. All that means is we aren’t adding any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere overall. However, given how much we produce, that’s a pretty big deal.

An Economic Boost

But changing to another kind of fuel, even one that’s pretty much exactly what we’re used to would be a massive upheaval. In 2015, the fossil fuel industry made $285 billion in profit for the U.S. and Canada alone. Keep in mind that it’s a global industry, so that’s only a small portion of its revenue. That means any significant changes to their operation can come with a hefty price tag, even if it is better for everyone in the long run.

But recent research by a team at Princeton has made a compelling argument for carbon-neutral synthetic fuel. The team ran several scenarios to determine if it was possible to produce synthetic fuel while cutting carbon emissions and making an economic profit. The answer for both of those questions appears to be a resounding yes.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Right now, the technology is available, but it’s still small. There’s a lot of work to be done to scale it up to industrial levels. Once that happens, we’d have a much better chance of not only making carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, but pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, especially if we’re able to move our electric grid’s power over toward more sustainable options like wind and solar.

One of the biggest issues is the search for cleaner energy has gone down so many different paths, but we haven’t picked one to focus on. Synfuel is a great option because it doesn’t ask anyone to change much. You can drive the same cars, fill up tanks the same way — and no one has to add charging stations anywhere. Implementing it nationwide would take 30 to 40 years, which could put us in line to meet 2050 standards.

Carbon-neutral synthetic fuel isn’t a fix-all. We have no silver bullet to help us instantly stop worsening climate change, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Reaching carbon neutrality is paramount if we want to continue living on this planet, so we should use every tool at our disposal.

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Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She enjoys reading and writing about how technology is changing the world around us.

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