Carbon-neutral fuel firm eyes aviation market

 - August 25, 2009, 10:08 AM

Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS), a UK- based company founded by a small group of scientists and engineers, is reaching out to the aviation industry in the hopes of marketing a carbon-neutral jet fuel made from carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

To date, most renewable fuels are produced using the Fischer-Tropsch process, which uses carbon monoxide and hydrogen to produce liquid hydrocarbons. The problem with that process, according to AFS chairman Tony Marmont, is that it requires the use of coal–which adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The AFS process does not require the use of coal. Instead, the fuel is produced using carbon dioxide that has been extracted from the atmosphere. The CO2 is concentrated and, using an iron-based catalyst, mixed with hydrogen that has been produced by the electrolysis of water. Since the carbon is “borrowed” from the atmosphere, the process does not increase atmospheric CO2 levels, Marmont maintains.

And while the process itself–which involves the use of sodium hydroxide spray towers to capture the CO2–might sound complicated, “it’s very easy to do,” Marmont said. “And the fuel is cheap to produce, about £0.15 [$0.22] a liter. But obviously we wouldn’t sell it for that.”

The process also requires little energy output and does not require a grid connection, which reduces electricity costs. The entire process can be powered by renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines, Marmont said.

The AFS process can be used to produce a range of fuel types, but the company plans to target civil aviation and defense. “We don’t think the big fuel companies–  ExxonMobil, Shell–will want us in their courts,” Marmont explained. “It would conflict with their markets. So we think our biggest market is aircraft fuel.”

East Midlands Airport is among the organizations that have expressed an interest in using the AFS fuel, according to Marmont. The airport is already involved in various sustainable development projects and aims to be carbon-neutral by 2012. “If the airport could get carbon-neutral fuel, it said it’d be the first to take it,” Marmont said.

Aside from environmental concerns, Marmont believes there is another reason for the aviation industry to move away from fossil fuels. “The oil supply is diminishing,” he said. “By 2020 there won’t be enough fuel to run the world, and it’s going to be catastrophic.”

The key, he said, is to start moving away from fossil fuels and begin the production of sustainable fuels. “We can make endless quantities using renewable energy, and any country will be able to do it,” he said.

At the moment, however, AFS has successfully produced only a few milliliters of the carbon-neutral fuel, which it says is “identical” to jet-A. The company estimates that it will cost £960,000 ($1.6 million) to construct a 40-foot prototype container that could produce five liters of fuel. The company believes the prototype could be complete in nine months.

Once the prototype is built, the company will raise money to build containers capable of producing 25 liters or more, which will be sold to private companies to produce their own fuel on-site. The goal is to produce a 100-ton-per-day refinery costing around £640 million.

The AFS team consists of Marmont, a university professor of renewable energy and founder of environmental firm Beacon Energy; Dr. Peter Harrison, a civil engineer who worked in offshore developments; Dr. David Benton, a chemist who spent 28 years at the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston; Richard Monkhouse, who designed one of the first video-synthesizers and generated the first stereoscopic map of the universe; and mechanical engineer Dr. John Barton, who designed Rolls-Royce engines.