A technology that goes one better than carbon capture could be crucial in fighting climate change

Our Science Editor says that the latest developments prove British companies are at the forefront of innovation in the green sector
  • @SteveAConnor

In the high-stakes game of climate change, there is no get-out-of-jail-free card. We cannot continue to burn the fossilised carbon stored underground for tens of millions of years as oil, coal and gas and hope that it will not end up in the atmosphere to exacerbate the greenhouse effect and global warming.

However, there is one technology that could help us. It is called carbon capture, where carbon dioxide from industrial emissions is effectively removed from the air and stored in a safe place where it can do no harm.

Even better would be to utilise this source of carbon by combining it with hydrogen from water to make hydrocarbon fuels – petrol. A small British company appears to have done this on a small scale and even claims to be on the verge of making it commercially viable.

The process is still in the early stages of development, and far too inefficient yet to compete with conventional fossil fuels. There are efficiency problems at each stage, from capturing the carbon dioxide from air to combining it catalytically with hydrogen derived from water vapour to make Syngas, methanol and more complex hydrocarbons.

Nevertheless, the technology has the potential to be a “game changer” in our attempts to avoid dangerous climate change, according to Tim Fox, the head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London.

“What was just a smart idea in the minds of a handful of academics a few years ago is now a proven, engineered method for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making a useful product,” Dr Fox said. “The beauty of petrol from air is that you are effectively recycling CO2 and avoiding further transport emissions… It is hugely encouraging that it is British engineers and entrepreneurs who are taking air capture technology out of the lab and using it to create a product.”

There can be few better examples of the putative green economy than the small company behind this leap towards “petrol from air”. It was set up only three years ago, the brainchild of Tony Marmont, a soft drinks millionaire and renewable energy fanatic. Yet the small start-up seems to have stolen a march on the rest of the world by demonstrating CO2 capture as a viable industrial prospect.

However, even if it works, it does not mean that we can continue to burn fossil fuels with impunity. It is still not a get-out-of-jail-free card.