Banking on air

Perhaps you thought the new MacBook Air was the only hot item to stake its reputation on the atmosphere, but there’s more, oh there’s more. Two developments in the tech world this week hope to suck dollars out of thin air. One involves a concept car that will run on compressed air and is expected to be ready within a year, and the other involves producing synthetic fuel from carbon dioxide, reclaimed from the atmosphere, and water.


The air car, known as OneCAT, comes from a French inventor and former Formula 1 engineer named Guy Negre, who says he has secured financial backing from Tata Motors, the Indian automotive giant. The car can travel 150 kilometers at a time running on compressed air alone, but it can also be coupled with another fuel source—ethanol or diesel, for example—to cross a much longer distance. According to a December story in Australia’s The Age, Melbourne will be the manufacturing base for the new air car. Here’s more on compressed air engines from MDI, the company behind Negre.

Though clean at the tailpipe and in some senses free, there’s a catch to powering a motor with compressed air. In some ways it is a lot like hydrogen, in that compressing it requires energy in the first place. The idea has been around for some time, but it’ll be interesting to see if this time it comes to fruition.

The synthetic fuel project, coming out of Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a rather neat way of combining significant improvements in carbon capture technology with the production of carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, essentially just from air and water. Basically, researchers have found a way to strip carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a way that consumes 96% less energy than a conventional thermal stripping process and is able to scrub about 20% more carbon dioxide than usual from the air in a single pass. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is very dilute, so to do anything significant with that CO2 involves capturing lots of it at a time. The Los Alamos researchers then combine the CO2 with water, which has been split into hydrogen and oxygen, to then be able to convert it into methanol (CH3OH). The last step is a proven technology—the use of methanol as a fuel got its first gasp of air during the 1970s oil crises. The process, called Green Freedom, is primarily intended for use in vehicles and aircraft. They intend to power it all with a carbon-neutral source, with a focus on nuclear power. Here is the press release. (Hat tip to Green Car Congress.)