Friday, 19 October 2012

Today versus clean energy

Rather worryingly I have just heard the Today programme make a total hash out of explaining a new and clean way to produce petrol. Frankly, they were very close to just laughing at what, to me sounds an excellent idea.

You might say that petrol (gasoline) is yesterday's fuel - but you'd be wrong. It's today's fuel and we are a good way - 20, 30, maybe 40 years off it being seriously phased out. We neither have the infrastructure, cheap enough vehicles or good enough range on electrics to switch to hydrogen and/or electric cars. People who think it will be sooner live in cloud cuckoo land. And don't think the switch will be driven by us running out of oil. Apart from untapped oil reserves in harder-to-get-to places, many countries have coal reserves, and coal can be converted into oil. The US alone has enough coal to fulfil current oil usage for around 200 years at costs less than current oil prices. So we need ways to do petrol in a more environmentally friendly fashion, which this is.

The scheme is a clever one because it gets its carbon from carbon dioxide in the air, so when you use the petrol you aren't adding any CO2 to the atmosphere. It's a demonstrator at the moment, producing something like 5 litres a day, but in principle it can be scaled up. It uses carbon dioxide and water vapour to produce methanol, which is then converted to petrol, and the energy to do all this is renewable. Here's a quick video:



So let's see how Today got it wrong. First, Evan Davies, for whom I usually have quite a lot of respect was mocking the fact that it only produced 5 litres a day. 'That'll solve our problems,' he said (roughly). Come on, Evan. It's a demonstrator. The quantity is irrelevant.

Then their economics correspondent (or environment correspondent, this is from memory) waded in. He pointed out that you have to put the energy in to make the petrol here, where the energy came from the Sun in fossil fuel, so it will take a lot more energy in compared with the energy you get out. This is true to a point - but bear in mind petrol doesn't jump out of the ground into your car's fuel tank. We have to have extremely expensive (both financially and in energy terms) discovery and drilling operations, not forgetting the cost of cleaning up nasty oil spills. And it's not petrol that comes out of the ground, it's crude oil. So then you have the energy intensive operation of cracking and extracting the petrol from this.

Finally, there was no mention of the most significant point. That pretty well all the energy expended in the extraction, preparation and use of petrol today involves burning fossil fuels and adding to the CO2 load of the atmosphere. By comparison, in this method the energy used in producing the petrol is renewable and the petrol itself came out of the atmosphere so doesn't add to the CO2 load when its burned.

Realistically there are problems. The process might not scale up well. It could be expensive both financially and in energy terms (I don't know how much energy goes into the discovery, drilling, extraction and refining of petrol). But to effectively dismiss it out of hand the way the Today team did is appalling.

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