I see a jet engine. Stress builds up and it pushes to move. A plume of heat brightens the air behind it. As it roars, ear plugs are required.
I’m only three meters away and the engine, the size of a rugby ball, is attached to a well-protected bench, but what makes it unique is the fuel: almost zero carbon, no oil or gas added, made of air and water.
A Glimpse of a Possible Future Powered by Synthetic Fuels
Its creator, Paddy Lowe, looks on with admiration.
“There are no fossil molecules. Because all the molecules in this hydrocarbon come from hydrogen, water and carbon dioxide from the air.
“The problem with Global Warming Fossil is carbon that is extracted from rocks and released into the atmosphere, which is unbalanced. It’s balanced now.”
Paddy has an impressive engineering resume with top technical roles at three Formula One teams that have contributed to 12 championship titles.
But now he heads Zero Petroleum, a company that makes liquid fuels that have the potential to power conventional engines with minimal climate impact.
They use direct air capture technology for electrolysis to capture carbon dioxide from air and hydrogen from water.
These are then combined to make a hydrocarbon liquid fuel: called synthetic or e-fuel.
The entire process requires a large amount of energy. But Paddy claims it produces guilt-free combustion.
“Anywhere fossil fuel we use today is an excellent candidate for synthetic fuel.
“We see a day, in a few decades, where all the fuel we use today, which comes out of the ground from oil wells, will be artificially delivered and industrialized from air and water.”
He believes it will create an industry similar to today’s oil and gas business.
They have already worked with the RAF to refuel aircraft with their own fuel.
The team also claims another advantage for synthetic fuels: they are made from scratch and thus can be engineered more precisely to increase the efficiency of different engines and with less pollution.
But, for now, their factory is like a lab, very high-tech and with clear resonances of engineering creativity but small: only able to produce 30 liters of synthetic fuel a day and at an eye-watering price.
Zero Petroleum has 44 staff members – some from F1 and others from the oil and gas sector – looking to use their skills to make a difference in the world.
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‘Saving the world my way’
One of them is research chemist Vida Arthur who said: “Our process takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then we’re using it to do something beneficial for society… I’m not harming the environment but saving the world in my own way.”
Paddy and his team expect the initial users to be airplanes but believe synthetic fuels will be used with batteries in on-road cars and trucks.
But many energy experts are skeptical of their widespread adoption given the huge demand for electricity and technology from the entire production cycle of synthetic fuels.
E-fuel production ‘costs a lot of money’
Colin Walker, from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, says the physics of synthetic fuels means the economics are stacked against it.
“You need five times more electricity to generate fuel than just plugging in an electric vehicle’s battery and letting it run its course.
“And that means five times as many wind turbines, solar panels, and it costs a lot more money.
“I see e-fuels playing a more difficult role in power to decarbonize sectors like aviation, but I think we have a great technology in battery electric vehicles. It’s already being introduced.”
Liquid fuels are powerful, transportable and compatible with existing infrastructure so it’s easy to see the appeal of a climate-friendly version.
But many observers suspect that their growth may perpetuate our harmful addiction to burning things.