Under the skin: a carbon-neutral fuel that also cleans the air

Almost everything is on the table when it comes to how cars will run in the not too distant future.

While batteries may be the favourite at the moment, interest in carbon-free industrial fuels has revived in the past year or two, with Porsche one of its ardent pioneers.

Some synthetic fuel processes have the potential to kill two birds with one stone, not only producing carbon-neutral fuels but also removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the same time.

One is the production of methanol produced by a chemical reaction between hydrogen and carbon dioxide produced sustainably in the atmosphere using a process called Direct Air Capture (DAC).

Canadian company Carbon Engineering has been doing this since 2015 and says it is building plants capable of capturing 1 million tons of airborne carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of 40 million trees.

In the UK, the University of Surrey has received a £250,000 award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to fund a project aimed at producing carbon-negative methanol from DAC.

Methanol has been used on and off for many years as an alternative fuel. In the late 1990s, the Mercedes-Benz fuel cell teams (as part of DaimlerChrysler) were convinced that the fastest way to get fuel cell electric vehicles was not by charging hydrogen but methanol.

All that was needed was to move the liners to the underground petrol tanks at gas stations, and upgrade the pumps to handle the methanol, which could be transported by road tankers such as gasoline and diesel. Repairers would extract hydrogen from the methanol on board the car to feed the fuel cells and drivers would pump out the methanol as gasoline.

German engineers weren’t alone in believing that methanol had potential. In 2006, Nobel laureate George Ulla wrote the book Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, which explained the benefits of the methanol economy, and predicted the now well-understood climate crisis.

In 2008, engineer James Turner, then head of the advanced powertrain at Lotus Engineering, and his colleague Richard Pearson developed the Exige 270E Tri-Fuel prototype, based on the supercharged Exige S, capable of running on either gasoline, ethanol or methanol;

The cooling effect of alcohol increased the density of the intake air, and although it carried less power by volume than gasoline, alcohol also had a higher octane rating, so the net result was an increase in power from 240 hp for a standard car to 270 hp. Turner estimated the car’s incremental manufacturing cost at the time was around £40.

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