NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 22, 2008

People could still be driving gasoline-powered cars 50 years from now, churning out heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere -- and not contribute to global warming, according to Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists, F. Jeffrey Martin and William L. Kubic Jr.

According to the scientists, their idea is simple:

  • Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide.
  • The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.
  • This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels.
  • The closed cycle -- equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed -- would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.

There is, however, a major caveat that explains why no one has built a carbon-dioxide-to-gasoline factory -- it requires a great deal of energy:

  • To deal with that problem, the scientists say they have developed a number of innovations, including a new electrochemical process for detaching the carbon dioxide after it has been absorbed into the potassium carbonate solution.
  • Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline on a commercial scale -- say, 750,000 gallons a day -- would require a dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one.

According to their analysis, the scientists say it would cost about $5 billion to build, could produce gasoline at an operating cost of $1.40 a gallon and would turn economically viable when the price at the pump hits $4.60 a gallon, taking into account construction costs and other expenses in getting the gas to the consumer.  With some additional technological advances, the break-even price would drop to $3.40 a gallon, they said.

Source: Kenneth Chang, "Scientists Would Turn Greenhouse Gas Into Gasoline," New York Times, February 19, 2008.

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