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FAQs | Commonly Asked Questions about AFS and the process

Commonly asked questions about AFS and the synthetic fuel process

We cannot predict the future, but our strategy is adaptable and our business plan to produce renewable liquid fuel for motorsports is viable, practical and realistic. We will become increasingly relevant to wider fuel markets as long-term fossil-oil prices rise inexorably and inevitably in line with rising demand and declining supply.

AFS is developing 3 key areas of technology:

  • Capture and release of CO2 as a concentrated gas for use in our process
  • Hydrogen production by electrolysis of water using electricity
  • Improved synthesis of liquid fuels from mixtures of gases including carbon dioxide

These technologies will be valuable even if some of our economic assumptions turn out to be false. Below are some questions and answers related to our core assumptions.

Business and investment questions

How can people get involved in AFS?

We are looking to fund the next stage of our development - the building of a 1-tonne a day production plant and the commercialisation of our technology - but we have to and want to do so, of course, in the right and proper way within the rules governing the financing of businesses in the UK.

Under these rules, we can talk to potential angel investors, "sophisticated investors" and professional investors about funding (with appropriate safeguards all round) but we're not able to have those conversations directly with members of the public at this time.

There may be options that allow us to raise finance more widely in the future and if so, we’ll be carrying details on our website, blog and Twitter feeds.

Is AFS going to develop this technology as an open source model – or could this be social enterprise?

We need to provide at least a modest return to the people who have invested time and money so far and as new investors come in. Capital-intensive projects do not seem to lend themselves easily to open source development, but as we develop, this is something we will continue to review.

When do you think you can start marketing this technology in the world commercially?

Right now. We are ready to build a small commercial plant using point source CO2 within 18-24 months of funding

Who have you demonstrated your technology to? 

We have demonstrated to carmakers, and just written a joint paper with Lotus for example on blended fuels. We are in discussions with petroleum blending companies that have shown great interest because we make a high-octane hydrocarbon mixture with a rating of approximately 94

Product applications questions

You have in 2012 produced your first engine fuel made from air. What fuels do you produce?

Our ultimate – and an original goal - is aviation fuel by reacting carbon dioxide extracted from the air with hydrogen extracted from water (using renewable electricity) to make hydrocarbons. We currently make methanol and petrol (gasoline). Methanol has lots of applications in its own right, but we also convert methanol into gasoline. In New Zealand, in the 1990s, Mobil Corp. made synthetic gasoline from methanol. We have our own version of that process. The difference is that they used natural gas while we are using wind energy, recovered CO2, and electrolytic hydrogen.

Science and technology questions

Would it be possible to use the hydrocarbons in plastic that aren't currently recyclable in your fuel generation process?

Other teams not currently connected to AFS are exploring hydrocarbons from waste plastics.

How do you capture CO2 from the air? 

We use a “scrubbing column”—a large tower containing alkali. CO2 and water produce a weak acid that reacts with the alkali creating bicarbonate that you then process from which to recover the carbon dioxide. This is done thermally by heating it up to 100 degrees plus, under slight pressure.

Have you been certified as CO2 neutral by independent bodies?

Yes we intend to be. However it is not necessarily straightforward.  If we take CO2 from air obviously it is. If we take it from a brewery or distillery, it is. We could also argue that if we take it from a fossil-fuelled power station it is, because firstly, we are preventing the emission of the equivalent amount of CO2 from a fossil oil source, and second, we are getting twice the value of the CO2 that is emitted because the same carbon is being used twice.

DME is created from biomass (plants etc) and you can create methanol from that or other sources. How are you producing fuel from air and water in this case?

Our process converts methanol first to DME and then converts DME into gasoline. This is the Mobil methanol to gasoline process.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is already being done as part of enhanced oil recovery. All the experts say it is practical and safe. Some gas deposits contain large amounts of CO2 that has been trapped safely underground for millions of years. Why not just sequester the CO2?

Even if CCS is practical and affordable, it will take about a decade to do in useful amounts. In any case, the emissions from small and mobile sources such as transport cannot be captured. Our key technology of air capture and use of CO2 will be still be very valuable and needed in combination with CCS. It might be needed to avoid runaway climate change.

Why not just use CO2 captured from fossil fuel combustion?

As long as there is a net flow of carbon from the ground to the air, the amount of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere and oceans will increase with all the climate change and ocean acidification problems that this causes. Burning fossil for stationary energy uses (for example electricity generation) then “reusing” that fossil released CO2 as fuel provides a secondary use of the same CO2 which, arguably, avoids other fossil CO2 that would otherwise be burned.

However, this appears to be very wasteful of energy. In the short term, as a stop gap, some companies and countries may choose to carry out air capture of CO2 for the purposes of CCS while also continuing to burn fossil fuels.

This is a second-best, emergency option, but would nevertheless make our technology valuable. Concentrated CO2 from sustainable sources such as anerobic digestion or brewery processes offers sustainable small-scale opportunities for AFS.

Production questions

From a larger scaled environmental/commercial perspective, has there been consideration for production alongside a nuclear plant?

A nuclear plant would potentially provide an “unlimited” source of renewable power but there are other questions about nuclear power plants that might need to be considered.  Certainly something we would be willing to look at.  We try to keep our minds open to all the options that can help address the looming energy deficit.

Is it possible to scale down to domestic/community scale plants?

Larger plants are more efficient, but our initial commercial plants will be community scale.

Who will be your first customers?

A lot of gasoline users have a requirement for sustainable fuel elements in their fuel. Motor racing is one example. Conventionally they use bio-ethanol. The advantage of using our gasoline is it has a higher energy density and it doesn’t take up land that could be used for food.

Would you need to locate production plants near large water sources? 

On a small scale, probably not. But if we are talking about refinery scale, it would be useful to have access to large amounts of water. Being close to and using point sources of CO2 also offers significant cost advantages over air capture at the present time.

When will you have a vehicle running on your fuel?

We have already run a small motorised scooter on fuel taken directly from the fuel reactor, but we will run larger and more serious vehicles on our fuel in the near future with no modifications to the engines or the vehicles themselves.

What if wind power deployment stalls in the UK? Where does that leave AFS?

AFS works equally well on nuclear powered electricity or any other form of renewable energy. As for continued use of fossil fuels, the UK is fast running out of economically extractable coal, oil and gas.

If it is to have secure and affordable supplies of energy, without risking a severe trade imbalance as the prices of imported fuels go up, the UK must turn to nuclear and/or renewable power for the majority of its energy.

Energy questions

What is the big-picture energy balance for this process? If all fuel used were produced by AFS, what would happen to the CO2 percentage in the atmosphere?

We understand that if the world could go carbon neutral for 10 years it is likely that climate change inducing carbon levels in the atmosphere would drop back to historic levels

What is the energy yield of the system? Vs hydrogen direct to FC to e-engine?

Hydrogen and electric vehicles require infrastructure changes and have disadvantages, not least storage and transport compared to our process fuel which can go straight in to existing vehicles and infrastructure, but there is probably scope for a variety of transport solutions as demand for fossil oil grows and supplies become ever more constrained geologically and politically.

How many kWh does the demonstrator facility consume in one month?

Our approach is predicated on using renewable sources of electricity, particularly electricity that is stranded or surplus. Our demonstrator is not designed for maximum efficiency but for convenience of running the development programme. It gives us confidence that we can deliver acceptable EROEI in even a 1-tonne commercial plant.

How many kWh of renewable electricity are needed to make 1 litre of synthetic petrol? 

Our EROEI across the system, compare favorably with fossil fuels energy conversion ratios and with biofuels. This is a complex area but as you would expect our efficiencies also improve with scale.  Our development work in the Demonstrator gives us confidence that even a 1-tonne a day plant will deliver figures better than 3 units of (renewable) energy in to one unit out in the highly usable form of liquid fuel.  Across the whole system including a dedicated wind farm for example and over the 20+ year life of a plant we would expect a ratio of 1 unit in for 9 units out.

How much CO2, power and water does AFS need to make a litre of fuel?

We need 3.9kg of CO2 to make one kilogram, or about 3.1kg to make one litre of gasoline. A typical ammonia plant would make well over 1000 tonnes of CO2 per day. So a large gasoline reactor would probably use all the CO2 from a very large ammonia plant. 

We need about 30 KWh to make 1 Kilogram of fuel. The main energy cost is the cost of making the hydrogen through electrolysis of water. Most hydrogen is manufactured by steam reforming fossil fuels but our objective is to use sustainable energy, such as wind, hydro, and perhaps solar.

To make a tonne of gasoline we would need about four and a half tonnes of water. However, all the water used to make the hydrogen is regenerated during methanol and gasoline synthesis, and some could be recycled.

Cost questions

Will the price of this fuel be competitive on the market?

Yes our first small commercial plant can produce a specialist fuel that is competitive with existing fossil-based specialist fuels. We can be price competitive with additional benefits of being C02 neutral, consistent in quality and a secure source of fuel.

Environmental questions

The additives this fuel needs to be used with current fuels - how sustainable are they?

Relatively small amounts of additives are needed. Our very first batch of petrol powered a simple internal combustion engine with no additives at all.

How much water is consumed to produce  "New Petrol"?

To make a tonne of gasoline we would need about four and a half tonnes of water. However, all the water used to make the hydrogen is regenerated during methanol and gasoline synthesis, and some could be recycled. 

What if there is no shortage of oil? The conversion of coal and gas to liquid fuels is well established. Peak coal and gas are decades away. Furthermore, lots of shale gas has been discovered recently. There is no shortage of fossil fuels.

There is absolutely no evidence that this is true (just the opposite) but in any case we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The danger of runaway greenhouse effect is also a real one. The emission of carbon dioxide from transport on its own is enough to exceed the allowable emissions. Therefore the ability to capture CO2 from the air is a very useful and valuable technology.

Surely it makes sense to use renewable energy for electricity generation, freeing up coal and gas for conversion to liquid fuels?

Yes, renewable energy should be used to displace fossil-fuelled generation wherever practical. However, the costs of grid reinforcement, for example from the North of Scotland to London, would be about £500/kW. In contrast, we believe that we can install electrolysers for much less than this. Some say that electrolysers can be manufactured for only £75/kW. Even if this number is over-ambitious, there is certainly scope to greatly reduce the cost of electrolysers by mass production.

Furthermore, if the UK is to meet its promised reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 80%, all sectors of the economy must drastically cut emissions. This implies a much greater deployment of low-carbon energy supply. For the UK this means wind power and nuclear power. The low-carbon electricity supply will then exceed electricity demand alone, requiring transfer of energy from the electricity sector to the transport, heating and industrial sectors. This includes the production of hydrogen by electrolysis.

Surely it is easier to develop novel biomass technologies like algae? Why can't the UK just import a lot of biomass?

Because dedicated biomass competes with food production and bio-diverse ecosystems for fertile land and fresh water. The extremely high growth rates claimed for algae are only achievable in special conditions of abundant fertiliser and concentrated CO2 supply. In order to supply this CO2 sustainably, air capture of CO2 will be required.

Even the synthetic nitrogen-rich fertiliser requires hydrogen to fix the nitrogen via the Haber process, and the conversion of biomass to liquid fuels requires fuel synthesis technology. These are precisely compatible with technologies that AFS is developing!

In fact, the conversion of biomass to liquid fuels can also be done more effectively and efficiently with the help of added hydrogen. Much more fuel can be made from a given amount of biomass by adding hydrogen than by simple gasification. The added hydrogen gives a better ratio of hydrogen to carbon going into a Fischer-Tropsch or methanol reactor.

Electrical and hydrogen technologies are improving all the time. Do we need synthetic hydrocarbon fuels?

Yes, it is very unlikely that there will ever be a long-haul electric or hydrogen-fuelled plane. This is one reason why aviation is such a focus for us. Electricity is also very difficult and expensive to store. In order to decarbonise the UK, lots of wind power will be required but wind power varies from day to day, week to week and season to season.

Even hydrogen is difficult to store in large amounts. If the hydrogen is stored by combining it with a source of carbon (CO2 from the air), can be stored and used in existing vehicles and infrastructure.