CO2-to-fuel scams

Skepticality podcast‘s Derek Colanduno posted a Facebook link to an Inhabit article featuring another free-energy scheme, this time by a company claiming they can turn CO2 into automobile fuel. This kind of claim shows up from time to time: a company pops up with an incredible new announcement about a revolutionary new technology that can turn something cheap and plentiful into limitless energy. The classic ur-example is an automobile engine that can burn water. This particular company’s claim (I’m not going to mention the company’s name or link to them directly, thus cheating them of a frivolous SLAPP suit) is that it can cheaply convert carbon dioxide into fuel, using a proprietary “bio-catalytic process”.

The problem with all such claims is that they are impossible. Not simply difficult, or requiring of clever innovations to beat, but literally impossible.

A catalyst cannot make a chemical reaction go, no matter how awfully strongly you wish it to happen. The only thing a catalyst does it speed up a slow chemical reaction, but the reaction still has to have some kind of thermodynamic driving force before it will proceed at all. In this case the claim is about a secretive – of course they’re always secretive – “bio-catalytic process” that can cheaply convert CO2 into fuel, resulting in free money and the whole wide world saved. The problem is that no catalyst in the universe can make CO2 turn into hydrocarbons, all by itself. To do that you have to either find a place or make a machine in which CO2 is unstable and will quickly react with water to form hydrocarbons, such as methane, ethane, octane, etc., or you have to pump energy into CO2 to break it apart and recombine it with a supply of hydrogen.

There is a natural method of turning CO2 into fuel: it’s called photosynthesis, followed by the burial of dead plant or microbial remains where oxygen can’t get to them, followed by cooking those remains in an oxygen-free place – like deep in the Earth’s crust, in rocks – for hundreds of millennia. It’s also possible to harvest lots of plant remains from farms, build giant composters where you can dump the harvest, let the stinking mush ferment, siphon off the bubbling methane, then use a chemical refinery (perhaps running on natural gas) to turn the methane into more complex hydrocarbons. Sure, it can be done, but it’s not free, the “bio-catalysts” are plants or algae, and energy from sunlight is consumed to grow the plants.

There is no possible way to convert CO2 into fuel without pumping at least as much energy into the CO2 as you get out of the fuel produced, and thanks to the Second Law of Thermodynamics you can’t even get that much. Any claim about a mystery “bio-catalyst” turning CO2 into fuel has to be a scam, or an honest claim from some really stupid engineers. There is no free lunch, with energy or anything else.

Run, don’t walk, from this or any other similar bunko.


~ by Planetologist on October 14, 2008.

4 Responses to “CO2-to-fuel scams”

  1. Of course! They do it on Star Trek all the time. 😀

  2. Hey, but… if you use lots of fancy words and sound fancy. Can’t ANYTHING be done with the power of woo? 😉

  3. Easy there. Even stupid engineers should know better than that.

  4. But… but… but I had a pellet gun once that ran on CO2!!!

    Maybe their catalytic process is just to compress the hell out of it.

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