Various Companies Are Trying To Find A Suitable Alternative To Fossil Fuels, And Each One Offers Specific Proposals.
Extracting Carbon From The Air And Turning It Into Gasoline, some companies are looking for innovative solutions to make a hybrid fuel from the Carbon in the air and provide it to end consumers at a price close to fossil fuels.
One such startup is Prometheus, which claims to have designed a system capable of revolutionizing the energy industry. Interestingly, big names like BMW have invested in the mentioned startup.
Rob McGuinness, founder and CEO of Prometheus Fuels, announced the design and production of a Maxwell Core product at an official event. A device with a unique shell that uses carbon nanotubes in its construction has openings that can separate alcohol from water. This device is connected to a source consisting of water and alcohol.
While McGinnis was explaining the operation of the device, his team was filling the tank of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
The alcohol flowed through the shell and hardened it enough to provide the energy to run the engine. Then, the audience was allowed to ride this motorcycle.
The demonstration was part of McGuinness’ presentation as he unveiled a new technology that is set to be revolutionary. Prometheus intends to make history by extracting greenhouse gas from the air and turning it into Carbon-Neutral fuels at a price close to fossil fuels. Interestingly, the startup has attracted many investors. Big companies such as BMW, Maersk Store, and the well-known investment company Y Combinator have also invested in this startup so that this startup business obtained more than 50 million dollars in cash in cash in the first days of its establishment.
The idea of the above startup has received enough attention that some US government officials have mentioned it in their speeches. However, there is a problem in this field; The company has not yet provided the media with evidence or, more precisely, technical information to show that its idea can implement on a large scale. It is not harmful to know that this startup has managed to sign contracts with major airlines like American Airlines to provide them with millions of gallons of fuel.
The first spark of the formation of Prometheus
In a 2018 paper published in Science Advances, McGuinness explained that it is possible to create shells of carbon nanotubes that can repel salt and magnesium sulfate. Also, it is possible to design nanotubes with openings so large that alcohol molecules can pass through them, but the interior parts of the body of water repel.
McGuinness believes this technology can reduce costs and take an essential step in hybrid fuel production. In late 2018, McGuinness managed to register his project in the Y Combinator accelerator program and began the process of attracting investors. He says: “That’s when the idea of implementing the startup Prometheus Fuels came to my mind.”
What is Prometheus startup technology?
McGinnis and his team have prototyped a system that combines a nanotube shell with a device that sucks in carbon dioxide. This system converts the received Carbon into alcohol and then compresses it. The commercial version of the system uses renewable energy and has a final stage that converts the alcohol into blended forms of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. “The resulting fuel can compete with fossil fuels in terms of price and produce less greenhouse gas than fossil fuels,” says McGuinness.
The above technology has many differences from the working mechanism of large refineries that produce the fuel needed by the transportation system. Prometheus technology is modular and can be built at a low cost in different locations; Hence, it does not require the enormous infrastructure and pipelines that refineries operate. The company announced in April 2022 that it expects to have about half a million active fuel centers by 2030.
Centers will produce about 50 billion gallons of fuel annually and will suck nearly 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air by the end of this decade. Suppose this fuel is produced at the cost and scale claimed. In that case, Prometheus will not only seriously revolutionize the global energy market but is capable of becoming the undisputed power in this field. This startup will be able to neutralize the pollution of on-road vehicles, ships and airplanes simply. In addition, it significantly reduces dependence on fossil fuels.
However, some researchers, entrepreneurs, and big investors are skeptical about this issue.
Some experts, citing the introduction file of this device taken from MIT University, doubt that this startup can get the necessary funds to do such a thing. “It’s funny,” says Eric McFarland, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. We entered one of the technology bubbles again. People and some big companies invest their money in projects that will never implement, and this is one of those projects.
Another group speculates on how a small startup might have quietly managed to combine a modern chemical, a novel catalyst, and an advanced nanotube shell into a cost-effective system capable of commercialization.
They point out that the company has yet to demonstrate its system publicly or even provide potential investors with many details about how it works. These experts believe that it will take at least one or two decades for factories to be able to produce gasoline from the Carbon in the air and reduce its price to the level of fossil fuels. Using batteries in connection with personal electric cars has worked, but equipping all vehicles in the world with this technology and building charging stations will take at least several decades.
A solution called electrofuel
Prometheus and several other startups working on producing fuel from Carbon in the air have called their end product “Electrofuels” because the process essentially converts the energy in electricity into liquid fuel. The startups above believe that their idea is essential in controlling climate change. They have successfully built a system that creates carbon-neutral energy that meets the transportation industry’s needs.
Competing with the energy available in hydrocarbon fuels (such as gasoline and diesel) and their ease of use is not a simple issue that can easily ignore. “These fuels are cheap, easily portable, and readily available,” says Merritt Daley, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Center for Carbon Pollution Reduction.
The startup mentioned above believes that the best way to produce this new fuel type is to build power plants that suck carbon dioxide directly from the air using absorbent and solvent devices. Today, devices called electrolyzers can separate water and make clean hydrogen and convert hydrogen into hydrocarbons in combination with Carbon.
The mechanism of the above device is simple and is used by one of the competitors of Prometheus startup called Carbon Engineering. In 2017, the startup Carbon Engineering added the ability to produce fuel from Carbon in the air to one of its experimental power plants.
That same year, the company promised to build a commercial plant in British Columbia capable of producing more than 25 million gallons of low-carbon gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel annually. However, the problem is that it is expensive to make and use direct air suction equipment and the electrolyzer. Separating carbon dioxide from the air and compressing the resulting gas requires a high temperature.
In addition, electrolyzers require a lot of electricity.
A study conducted last year on electric fuels showed that the cost of producing each gallon of gasoline with standard technologies is about $16.80. The study predicts that this price will reach $6.40 in the next decade and $3.60 by 2050, but this price reduction will require significant reductions in the cost of equipment and electricity. Considering the mentioned costs, some observers believe electric fuel cannot find a place in the market without supporting policies.
However, Prometheus promises that their fuel can directly compete with fossil fuels. Based on innovative solutions, they have succeeded in devising a solution to eliminate the unnecessary steps that other electro-fuels use and are costly. In addition, the said startup says: “Operationalization of this mechanism only requires a few years instead of decades.”
How does Prometheus technology work?
Based on a four-step process, The system designed by Prometheus works.
- In the first step, industrial vanes suck air into the machine and mix it with water and a few other substances, such as sodium carbonate. Next, the device creates a reaction to convert the carbon dioxide molecules in the air from carbonate to bicarbonate.
- In the second step, the resulting material is transferred to a battery-like cell with a shell in the middle and electrodes on the sides. This cell uses electricity to produce several chemical reactions, ultimately creating alcohol. When the voltage change is done, carbon dioxide dissolved in water is converted to ethanol with an efficiency of 63%. Catalysis is used in the mentioned technology, which is based on the technology licensed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
- In the third step, the Prometheus carbon nanotube shell separates alcohol from water.
- In the fourth step, another catalyst combines with the alcohol, turning it into gasoline, diesel, or blended jet fuel. In 2020, the startup received a separate license from Oak Ridge Labs to make jet fuel from ethanol through a multi-step process based on an innovative catalyst from the company.
Prometheus’ performance in converting air carbon into fuel differs from other companies.
As McGuinness pointed out, the system designed by the mentioned startup can work under standard atmospheric pressure and at room temperature. This technology does not require the heat energy needed to produce compressed carbon dioxide and eliminates the cost of the electrolyzer for hydrogen production. In addition, the company’s solution can produce alcohol directly from carbon dioxide dissolved in water and convert it into standard fuels.
“If this startup can find a way to produce this type of fuel, the cost of energy will drop dramatically,” says Evan David Sherwin, a researcher at Stanford University. A fuel pump with a net zero carbon mark is mentioned in one of the slides provided by the startup mentioned above to investors.
Is the Prometheus startup technology practical outside the laboratory?
Perhaps the most critical question about the Prometheus technology is how the various parts of this experimental system, especially its electrochemical cells that produce alcohol, work outside the lab. “Academic groups have explored key parts of this process model,” says Sean McCoy, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s petroleum and chemical engineering department. Most projects face problems in the initial stages of research. Statistics show that most projects that have gone to electrochemical processes to convert carbon dioxide into alcohol have reached a low-efficiency rate.
“Is it technically possible to implement this as they’ve claimed?” McCoy says. The answer is yes, but if the fundamental problems of this mechanism are not solved, their idea will likely become a commercial reality in a few years. Can they offer a competitive price (without subsidies) with fossil fuels? I doubt”.
“Given the high cost of electrochemical cells and the electricity required, it is expensive to achieve the chain of addition reactions required to produce complex alcohols,” says McFarland.
“If the cost to this company is only 2 cents per kilowatt hour, they still cannot compete with fossil fuels.”
According to some critics, considering the cost of hardware, the need for electricity, and the ability of oil-producing countries to reduce the price of fossil fuels, it is unlikely that the startup mentioned above will be able to make fuel from the Carbon in the air that can compete with existing fuels in terms of price. It is enough for the oil exporting countries to reduce the costs so that the price of fuels such as gasoline will decrease.
“The main challenge is that you can’t compete with the energy that fossil fuels produce unless you have government institutions to support you,” McCoy said.
We are very close
The information available to shareholders in particular documents refers only to general information. In response to the uncertainties raised in this regard, McGinnis says: “When the company receives the carbon neutral certificate, we will begin commercializing the product. We have other ways to confirm fuel production, including carbon analysis.
We provided additional information about our technology at the stockholder meeting that was necessary to understand the performance of our acquisition. “We have used innovative solutions for which we have applied for patents.
In addition, we have trade secrets that need to be finalized to share with the public in the future.”
In another part of his speech, he mentions this point: “It is straightforward to say that startups will always fail, because in the past most of them have failed, but don’t forget that some of them have achieved great things. Prometheus does not face any scientific challenges; the only issue between us and fuel supply is large-scale commercialization and affordability.”