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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Fuel From Thin Air

Air Date: Week of February 22, 2008

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Dr. F. Jeffrey Martin is a Senior Advisor at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Dr. F. Jeffrey Martin talks with host Steve Curwood about capturing carbon dioxide from the air to make gasoline.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory believe they can solve two global problems with one electro-chemical solution. The researchers have come up with a new concept that they say can turn greenhouse gases in the air into gasoline for our cars. William Kubic and F. Jeffrey Martin have dubbed their idea: “Green Freedom.”

CURWOOD: Dr. Martin joins me now. You say the first step requires capturing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. But how?

MARTIN: Well, we absorb it out of the air using very large cooling towers. And once we absorb it, now we have the perfect ingredient for making gasoline.

CURWOOD: When you capture the CO2 you put it in a potassium carbonate solution?

MARTIN: That’s right.

CURWOOD: So, now you’ve captured the CO2 in the cooling tower. What happens next?

MARTIN: Now it’s stuck in solution and so the trick is to get it back out of solution and so you use an electrolytic process to liberate the CO2 out of the solution. So now you have a pure CO2 gas. It’s done in two steps. You can make methanol by taking it up to high temperatures and pressures, and under a catalytic process, then you dehydrate it. A second step, you do the same thing, you take it up to high temperatures and pressures and dehydrate it some more and then you end up with gasoline that you can use in your car.

CURWOOD: You must be very excited about this.

MARTIN: This is great. This is great, because it doesn’t have many, if any, downsides to it and it tends to solve all the problems instead of just moving the problem to another place.

CURWOOD: This takes a lot of energy, but as I understand it you’ve developed a process that takes comparatively less energy?


Dr. F. Jeffrey Martin is a Senior Advisor at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)

MARTIN: Yes. The roadblock that’s always been there before is the amount of energy that’s required to get very dilute amounts of CO2, or carbon dioxide, out of solution once it’s been captured. But we’ve been able to lower that by 97 percent.

CURWOOD: It’s got to take still a vast amount of energy to do this process. Where do you get that energy?

MARTIN: Well, we can get it from nuclear power. We can get it from wind. We can get it from geothermal. We can get it from solar. The most available one would be nuclear power in terms of being able to crank out the amount of energy to do this. But if other sources of electricity become more economical, we can use them as well.

CURWOOD: How many nuclear power plants would we need to say get all of our gasoline from your process?

MARTIN: Well, we being the United States?

CURWOOD: Yes.

MARTIN: About 500 to get all of it. That’s a very ambitious goal.

CURWOOD: That’s a lot of power.

MARTIN: It is, but we consume a lot of power. That’s the magnitude of what we do in this country. A more modest goal would be just to stabilize the U.S. domestic production. In other words, make up for the loss of production we see now every year. And that would be nine plants per year. Right now each plant would generate about six cubic meters of nuclear waste. And we have to get a process for disposal of that, which has not been solved up to this point in time.

CURWOOD: If the government officials were to come to you right now and say ‘okay, this is a terrific idea, we’d like to build this out,’ how much would it cost?

MARTIN: Well the cost of a full demonstration plant, one that’s producing at full capacity would be about five point two billion dollars, and we’re talking about 750,000 gallons a day. And that would take care of a small city.

CURWOOD: So what’s the nut you have to crack now?

MARTIN: Technically, it’s going to be very straight-forward. Just getting public acceptance and getting investment into the concept. We see this thing as low risk, and if anything in the future with new technology these costs and the risk will reduce even further.

CURWOOD: So let’s fast forward now. You go through these various steps and you come out with a gallon of gasoline. What would that cost?

MARTIN: Right now our best estimate is five dollars a gallon. This is at the pump, fully burdened with taxes.

CURWOOD: Now you say that your work has taken this from speculation to a viable concept. What happens next? What happens now?

MARTIN: Oh well, right now we’re going to demonstrate the technology and that will take about another year. And then we expect that in about five years the technology will now be available for commercialization.

CURWOOD: Dr. F. Jeffrey Martin is Senior Advisor at Los Alamos National Laboratory and co-creator of the “Green Freedom” concept.

The other day we got a letter from a listener who asked us to stop using the phrase global warming, and say “climate change” instead. The warming of the earth, she notes could lead to a slow-down of the Gulf Stream, and that would actually make parts of the East coast of North America and the West coast of Europe much colder.

We’d like to agree, but the phrase “climate change” has problems as well. For one thing, it doesn’t convey whether such changes are good or bad. And in my view, underplaying the perils of climate change is an exercise in denial and irresponsible journalism.

Woods Hole Research Center director John Holdren proposes “climate disruption” - which seems more accurate. In fact the climate is getting put so far out of whack that Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Hunter Lovins suggests we call it “global weirding.”

But since human activities have tipped the balance, and given our planet a fever, how about a phrase that has us taking some responsibility, although “human induced global catastrophe ” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

What do you think? Email us: the address is comments at loe.org, or call our listener line at 800 218-9988. That’s L-O-E dot O-R-G, or 800 218 99 88.

 

Links

Los Alamos National Laboratory

 

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