Manufacturing liquid fuel

One of the things that I think is often not appreciated about petroleum oil, is that it’s essentially stored solar energy.  Energy that was originally captured by life forms that died, sank to the bottom of oceans or lakes where under stagnant water they couldn’t decompose, and were eventually covered and put under pressure.

This energy capture happened over hundreds of millions of years.  We’ve been burning through it in the last century or so, and while current projections are that we might have reserves for decades or possibly even centuries to come, eventually it will be used up.  It’s a non-renewable resource.

One of the challenges with renewable resources such as solar energy has always been capturing and storing the energy.  The solutions up to now have been expensive and problematic.  However, that appears to be changing.  Scientists have created a liquid fuel that can store solar  energy for up to 18 Years:

Scientists in Sweden have developed a specialised fluid, called a solar thermal fuel, that can store energy from the sun for well over a decade.

“A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand,” Jeffrey Grossman, an engineer works with these materials at MIT explained to NBC News.

The fluid is actually a molecule in liquid form that scientists from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden have been working on improving for over a year.

This molecule is composed of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, and when it is hit by sunlight, it does something unusual: the bonds between its atoms are rearranged and it turns into an energised new version of itself, called an isomer.

Like prey caught in a trap, energy from the sun is thus captured between the isomer’s strong chemical bonds, and it stays there even when the molecule cools down to room temperature.

When the energy is needed – say at nighttime, or during winter – the fluid is simply drawn through a catalyst that returns the molecule to its original form, releasing energy in the form of heat.

The article goes on to describe in detail how it works, that research in this area is ongoing, and that we can expect the fuels to become denser and more efficient.

I’m not an energy expert, but this seems like a significant development.  We may be essentially inventing the ability to produce our own gasoline from solar energy.  Granted, it may not have the energy density of refined petroleum, but it sounds like that’s a gap that may close in time.

And as the technology matures, it may hasten the transition away from fossil fuels, which would be good news for the environment.  Some mornings it’s easy to feel optimistic about the future.

12 thoughts on “Manufacturing liquid fuel

  1. That’s an intriguing concept. I was worried as I read this that there might be some sort of carbon byproduct, but if we’re just switching back and forth between isomers of the same molecule that shouldn’t produce much waste.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Mike,

    Interesting! I’ve long thought the real breakthrough in renewables would be a process that would allow electricity from sunlight or wind, plus water and carbon dioxide, to be converted somehow to a synthetic fuel. Somewhat similar to the way the Haber Bosch process was a breakthroughs in synthetic fertilizer (and food) production worldwide.

    We can do this now (produce methane from renewable electricity with bacteria) but I’m not sure it’s very cost-effective yet–at least compared to the way costs are assigned to the extraction of hydrocarbons from the ground. I know there are some pilot scale bioreactors running that are doing this, in both the United States and in Europe. The key to renewables and a low-carbon energy infrastructure is storage, as you noted–so that the solar and wind energy can be stored and used when needed–and the production of synthetic natural gas or liquid biofuels from atmospheric carbon dioxide would allow the bulk of our existing energy infrastructure to operate on current technologies.

    I don’t think the technology you noted above would produce gasoline or a transportable fuel. It looks like a means of storing low grade thermal energy, which is not useful for transportation fuels or the production of higher grade forms of useful energy like electricity, but would certainly enable year round storage of solar energy for winter heating in northern climes. They mention improving their system so it can operate at 230 degrees Fahrenheit, and current combustion-driven technologies utilize working fluid temperatures upwards of 2,200+ deg F. Nuclear power plants run much cooler, but efficiencies are fairly low and not the primary driver for the cycle design.


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    1. Thanks Michael. You seem much more versed in this than I am. I didn’t know about our ability to produce methane. That’s interesting. If it’s not cost effective now, I wonder if it might eventually become more cost effective as the costs to extract fossil fuels go up (although that might not be for a while based on what I’ve heard).

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      1. Mike, I work as an engineer on energy projects, so am probably closer to some things happening in the field. Although that said, I work in a specific niche so can’t say I always have a good grip on the big picture.

        We actually have lots of technologies available to us should we ever wish or choose to do so, or be forced to do so economically. There are platforms under development to make ethanol from cellulose–which is derived from woody biomass, and doesn’t generally compete with land currently in use for food production, like corn ethanol does, for instance. We can make biodiesel from the processing of municipal waste water with algae, for instance, to keep the nutrients from our waste in a closed cycle rather than simply breaking them down into base elements as swiftly as possible. One of my favorite pipe dreams is the Algal Turf Scrubber, which can be used to scrub trace nitrates and phosphorous from our rivers. Putting land into production along the Mississippi with this would reduce the release of chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, which create hypoxic conditions every summer, while creating a liquid biofuel feedstock as well. It’s been a long time since I read about it, but I thought it was pretty interesting. We can make synthetic natural gas from municipal solid waste as well. We can even grow algae on the carbon dioxide from conventional power plants (plus sunlight and some nutrients).

        But I think that the cost of oil and gas has to come up a fair amount to make these and other renewable solutions more practical in markets where cost is by far the primary consideration, which is most of them. While raising the cost of energy would certainly have societal impacts, one wonders what the impacts are going to be long term of not imposing some sort of carbon tax on virgin carbon released to the atmosphere.


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        1. Ah, good to know you’re an engineer. I don’t think I knew that. (I read your biographical posts, but must have either missed it or forgotten it.)

          It seems like the environment is the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Free markets aren’t good at incorporating the costs to our shared environment. It pretty much requires society to decide to impose those costs, and society usually isn’t willing to do that until those costs are undeniable to the common citizen.

          A geologists told me several years ago that we were unlikely to ever suddenly run out of oil as the old sci-fi from the 70s suggested. He said there are huge reserves still locked up in the rocks, but that getting to it is at some point will start to become increasingly costly. Eventually it will get to the point where the alternatives work better economically. The problem is that is unlikely to happen before the environmental costs bite us.

          But it’s good to know that eventually we’ll have options.


  3. “One of the things that I think is often not appreciated about petroleum oil, is that it’s essentially stored solar energy.”

    Ha, yes! I’ve been teasing my friends about that for a long time! 😀

    Gasoline is so attractive because it stores a lot of energy in a very stable form. It’s going to take some equally attractive to help us break our addiction. (Running out of gas will surely help!)

    I’ve been wondering if various chemical or bio techniques will ultimately generate a new form of “gas” but there are still thermodynamics issues. All we can do is concentrate energy or move it around. It still has to come from somewhere.

    OTOH, enough sunlight comes our way that if we could make efficient use of it, from what I’ve heard, it would take care of our energy needs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read your old post and started to Like it, and then discovered that I already had and that we had a conversation on it! 🙂 Ah the march of time.

      Solar energy does seem like the best long term bet. The sun’s going to send out what it’s going to send out regardless. Life when it started may have used whatever energy was locally available, but it long ago figured out solar was a better source with photosynthesis. And like you said in the 2014 post, Earth receives titanic amounts of energy from it. The trick is storing it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, reading old posts is… weird, sometimes.

        I just saw (but didn’t delve into) an account proposing compressed air as a storage mechanism. Air is pretty compressible and freely available. Seemed like an interesting idea.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I didn’t delve, but I presume they use electricity during low-demand times to pressurize tanks that later drive turbines during high-demand times. There’d be some loss depending on the efficiency of your pumps and turbines, but we make pretty good ones.

            A pressurized tank would seem to hold its “charge” indefinitely, has no chemicals to recycle, and is easy to make.

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