I’m looking at jet engines. The thrust builds up gradually, and it needs to move with force. The hot plume makes the air behind it shimmer. If there is a whining sound, you will need to wear earplugs.
I’m only three meters away from it, the football-sized engine mounted on a solid bench, but what makes it unique is the fuel: virtually zero-carbon, no oil or gas involved, and made from air and water.
A glimpse into the possibilities of a synthetic fuel-powered future.
Its creator, Paddy Lowe, watched admiringly.
“There are no fossil molecules there. Because all the molecules in hydrocarbons come from hydrogen, water and carbon dioxide in the air.
“The problem is global warming The amount of fossil carbon mined from rocks and released into the atmosphere is uneven. Now this is balanced. “
Paddy has an impressive engineering pedigree, having held top technical roles with three Formula 1 teams, contributing to 12 championship titles.
But now he leads Zero Petroleum, a company that produces liquid fuels capable of powering conventional engines with minimal climate impact.
They use so-called direct air capture technology to extract carbon dioxide from the air and hydrogen from water through electrolysis.
They are then combined to make hydrocarbon liquid fuels: called synthetic fuels or e-fuels.
The whole process requires a lot of energy. But Paddy claims it can produce a guilt-free burn.
“Anywhere we use fossil fuels today are excellent candidates for synthetic fuels.
“We see that someday in a few decades, all the fuel we use today from oil wells will be delivered as synthetic fuel and industrially manufactured from air and water.”
He believes this will create an industry similar in size to today’s oil and gas industry.
They have teamed up with the RAF to use their fuel to fuel the aircraft.
The team also claims another advantage of synthetic fuels: They are made from scratch, so they can be more precisely engineered to improve the performance of different engines and have fewer pollutants.
But for now, their factory is more of a laboratory, very high-tech, with obvious engineering ingenuity, but small: only 30 liters of synthetic fuel a day can be produced, and the cost is eye-popping.
Zero Petroleum has 44 employees, some from F1 and others from the oil and gas industry, who want to use their skills to make a difference in the world.
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“Save the world in my own way”
One of them, research chemist Vida Arthur, said: “Our process takes carbon dioxide out of the environment, and then we use it to make things that are good for society…I’m not destroying the environment, I’m saving the world in my own way.”
Paddy and his team expect early users to be aircraft, but believe the synthetic fuel will be used in road cars and trucks alongside batteries.
But many energy experts are skeptical of its widespread adoption, given the enormous power and technical demands of the entire synthetic fuel production cycle.
E-fuel production ‘costs a lot of money’
Colin Walker of Energy and Climate Intelligence said the physics of synthetic fuel meant it was economically unfavorable.
“It takes five times as much electricity to produce the fuel as to simply put electricity into an electric car battery and get it going.
“That means five times as many wind turbines, five times as many solar panels, and that costs a lot of money.
“I do see a role for e-fuels in powering harder-to-decarbonize industries like aviation, but I think we have a great technology in battery electric vehicles. It’s already rolling out.”
Liquid fuels are efficient, transportable and compatible with much existing infrastructure, so it’s easy to see the appeal of climate-friendly fuels.
But many observers suspect that their development may prolong our destructive addiction to burning substances.