Solution: Fuel from the Air

Carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere can be used to manufacture methane, petrol, diesel or plastic.

Natural gas, petrol, diesel or plastic may ultimately turn out not be non-renewables after all. A Finnish research program is set to produce familiar fuels from atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Neo-Carbon Energy is the largest renewable energy program in Finland, one that seeks to create a completely new kind of energy system. The goal is nothing less than to use solar and wind energy to capture carbon from the atmosphere and produce fuel.

The program aims to replace non-renewable energy based business with a system that is in compliance with the Paris climate agreement, forcing energy companies to rethink their operations. Needing nothing but air and sunlight, the pilot plant is set to be completed within a year.

Neo-Carbon Energy is a joint project between the Technical Research Centre of Finland VTT, Lappeenranta University of Technology LUT and Finland Futures Research Centre FFRC at University of Turku.

“The project’s aim is to make energy companies change their operating principles radically.”

1) Which energy challenge will Neo-Carbon Energy solve, Project Coordinator Pasi Vainikka from VTT?

“We are creating a totally new type of emission-free energy system. If we wish to achieve international goals as regards the prevention of climate change, energy production in 2050 must be completely free of emissions.

What the project solves is the problem of energy storage. It stores solar and wind energy in fuels, such as methane (natural gas), petrol, diesel or plastic, made of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The energy stored in the fuels can also be reconverted to electricity in power plants, or they can be used in road transport. This makes solar and wind energy available also in cloudy and windless conditions.

The energy needs of transportation is a key issue for three reasons: biomass production cannot satisfy demand, electric cars cannot be deployed fast enough, and maritime and air transport are very difficult to electrify. The solution is to create fuels for transport without using any fossil energy.

Factors that need to be taken into account in this include energy storage, new energy services, transportation and the energy needs of industry.”

2) How will it improve the quality of life?

“The solutions we have developed will considerably reduce the amount of air pollution in cities. The value of clean air will only increase in the future.

A new kind of energy system will also generate new business opportunities. New businesses will emerge in all energy sectors, from power generation to transport to heating production.”

3) How will these solutions support sustainable development?

“Emission-free energy production will mitigate climate change, which is one of the greatest threats facing humanity in the future. The project provides incentives for energy companies to change their operating principles radically to enable us to produce and store energy cleanly.”

Neo-Carbon Energy has built a system that allows carbon dioxide to be captured from the air. Combining carbon dioxide with hydrogen extracted from rainwater is then used to produce synthetic fuel. Photo: Neo-Carbon Energy.
Neo-Carbon Energy has built a system that allows carbon dioxide to be captured from the air. Combining carbon dioxide with hydrogen extracted from rainwater is then used to produce synthetic fuel. Photo: Neo-Carbon Energy.


4) Where in your view will Neo-Carbon Energy be in ten years’ time?

“I believe that renewable energy sources will be an obvious alternative for politicians and consumers alike in ten years. A few years ago no one believed that the industry might operate exclusively with solar and wind power, because production was costly and energy could not be stored. Systems have now developed so quickly and the cost has come down that the argument has lost its relevance. The debate has made leaps in the right direction.

Whether carbon capture from the atmosphere will be a mainstream energy solution or even a viable technology depends entirely on the goals we set for emissions. If it is enough to produce 20 percent of energy from renewables, we can achieve that with biofuels. If we want to raise the share of renewables to 50 percent or higher, atmospheric carbon capture becomes necessary.

We already have the atmospheric capture technology, but lot remains to be done. You might compare the present situation to the time when Nokia mobile phones were still Mobiras.”

5) Have similar solutions been create elsewhere in the world?

“Similar research projects are under way, especially in Germany. However, no plants running exclusively on air and solar have been constructed elsewhere, so in that area Finland will be the first. The plant should be operational within a year.”

Text: Laura Manas 

Find all the stories in the series under the category “Theme: Energy”.

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