Air capture technology, which scrubs carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air, has the potential to become a ‘game-changer’ in the battle against climate change, and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers claims British engineers are at the forefront of making it a reality.

The technology was the subject of a conference – the first of its kind – held at the Institution’s London headquarters, where it was revealed that development of the technology has accelerated over the past few years, with one small British firm becoming the first company in the world to demonstrate CO2 air capture as a viable industrial prospect. Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS), based in Stockton-on-Tees, is using air capture to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

A press release from IMech revealed that AFS recently created its first litres of fuel at the company’s Stockton demonstrator plant, using the following process: Air is blown into a tower containing a mist of sodium hydroxide which reacts with the carbon dioxide in the air, forming sodium carbonate. Electricity is then passed through the sodium carbonate to release the carbon dioxide, which is stored.

A dehumidifier in the tower condenses water from the air. The water is then split into hydrogen and oxygen using an electric current. The carbon dioxide and hydrogen are reacted together to create Syngas, which is then processed to form methanol. The methanol is passed through a gasoline fuel reactor, creating petrol.

The company claims the fuel produced can be used in any regular petrol tank and, if renewable energy is used to provide the electricity, the process and end product are completely carbon neutral.

The clean fuel is described as a direct drop-in replacement fuel for existing vehicles and infrastructure; and can also be used to store intermittent ‘wrong-time’ or stranded ‘wrong-place’ energy from renewable sources and has many advantages over biofuels when blended with conventional petrol.

Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy & Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “Air capture technology ultimately has the potential to become a game-changer in our quest to avoid dangerous climate change. 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. The beauty of petrol from air is that you are effectively recycling CO2 and avoiding further transport emissions.

“While the major recent research advances have largely been made in the US and Canada, 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. This is particularly poignant given that so much of the world’s fossil fuel-based industrial economy of today has its origins in great British engineering innovation from the North East.

“What we need now is the financial and political support to help turn this revolutionary demonstration into a large-scale industrial solution that could make sustainable products, remove and store CO2 from point sources or the atmosphere and set the international carbon price to drive innovation across all clean technologies.”

David Still, chairman of Air Fuel Synthesis, said: “We are now ready to build the first commercial Air Fuel Synthesis production plant making carbon-neutral petrol. The technology can add to new or existing renewable energy projects, especially where the energy is stranded; where there is a premium for secure liquid fuels for existing vehicles; or for reducing carbon emissions. Demand for specialist high quality low-carbon fuels in motorsports offers a particularly attractive early niche market for investors.

“Further investors and partners will enable us to rapidly commercialise our technologies and help customers address fossil oil price volatility and supply constraints as well as the implications of carbon-driven climate change.“