Fill ‘er up with a gallon of ‘water gasoline’

Alternative fuels have failed to catch on because they require a major adjustment in the way society works. Here’s an alternative to that

File: A man fills his fuel tank at a gas station. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
File: A man fills his fuel tank at a gas station. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

While everyone agrees that alternatives to fossil fuels are needed, currently available alternatives require such a major an adjustment in manufacturing and social infrastructure so as to render the whole project untenable.

Besides, said Professor Moti Herskowitz of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, even if the world could be convinced to replace internal combustion engines in cars and trucks with engines that run on electricity, methanol, or other gasoline replacements, there remains one major problem. “If you notice, no one ever discusses alternative fuels for jets. No one wants a problem in the air, which makes jet fuel irreplaceable right now,” Herskowitz said.

Considering the fact that over 10% of crude oil is used for jet fuel, it appears that refined oil is going to be around for a long time.

If you can’t beat ’em, then join ’em, says Herskowitz. With a revolutionary system for making gasoline out of hydrogen extracted from water, and from carbon dioxide, two of the most common substances on earth, Herskowitz believes that he and his team at Ben-Gurion (including Prof. Miron Landau, Dr. Roxana Vidruk, and others at BGU’s Blechner Center for Industrial Catalysis and Process Development) have come up with the one alternative fuel that can succeed on a wide scale.

Herskowitz’s fuel is the realization of generations of inventors as well as environmentalists — a clean-burning fuel that that can replace refined oil in existing engines, saving society the huge cost, not to mention hassle, of changing everything to accommodate new fuel technologies.

That no-pain changeover from fossil fuels to clean alternative energy is why the system he and his team have developed has a far better chance of being adopted by business and industry than do other alternative fuels, Herskowitz told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “The fuel our method will produce will go right into the gas tank, as it exists now. The other solutions are very valid, but the issue will be applying them, and with our method that is not an issue.”

Professor Moti Herskowitz (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Professor Moti Herskowitz (Photo credit: Courtesy)

As an example, Herskowitz points to the experience of Better Place. “Their idea was to build a new infrastructure for fueling cars, but they were unable to get it off the ground, even after spending hundreds of millions. In the end, the company and the government realized that completing this infrastructure would just cost too much money.”

The failure of Better Place does not augur well for other alternative fuels that seek to replace fossil fuels, he added.

But with the “green feed” system that he and his team have developed, said Herskowitz, we can have it all — a clean-burning fuel that doesn’t require “dirty” power to produce (as is the case with batteries for electric cars, which are produced in factories that burn fossil fuels), or the redirection of valuable food growing resources to the production of crops to be used for alcohol-based fuel (a process that has turned out to cause far more damage to the environment than had been foreseen).

In Herskowitz’s system, gasoline, jet fuel, and other oil-based liquid fuels are produced by taking hydrogen and mixing it with carbon dioxide. This gas mixture is fed into a reactor packed with a nano-structured solid catalyst — also developed at BGU — to produce the “green feed,” an organic liquid and a gas that contain reactive hydrocarbons, said Herskowitz.

The result is a substance similar to synthetic crude oil, which could be converted into gasoline using technology that dates back to before World War II. The team has conducted numerous tests, and have found that the hydrogen/carbon dioxide gas produced by the system is as efficient as oil-based gasoline, if not more so — and it’s nonpolluting, as well.

Herskowitz introduced his system last week at the Bloomberg Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv last week. “It is envisaged that the short-term implementation of the process will combine synthetic gas produced from various renewable and alternative sources with carbon dioxide and hydrogen,” he said at the event. “Since there are no foreseen technological barriers, the new process should become a reality within five to ten years.”

The main issue at this point, said Herskowitz, is developing a cheaper way to extract the hydrogen gas. The technology to do this is well-known, and hydrogen is used to power cars, buses and trucks in many places, but current extraction methods are not cost efficient. The most promising method to produce large quantities of hydrogen at a commercially viable price, said Herskowitz, lies in splitting water (hydrogen and oxygen), extracting the hydrogen component as a gas, and pushing it into the green feed. “We are positive we can do produce hydrogen more cheaply,” Herskowitz said.

Acquiring the carbon dioxide needed for the process, he said, was sadly, very simple, as that pollutant, found in smokestack emissions from refineries, and power, steel and cement plants, is all too common.

Does this method of producing gasoline have a chance against Big Oil? After all, there are plenty of urban legend-type stories about oil companies suppressing methods that claim to turn water into gasoline.

“Obviously the oil companies have a lot of power, but if a government is determined to move ahead with alternative fuels, they cannot stop this. When oil was low in price, no one cared about alternative fuels, but now with the high price of fuel, as well as the insecurity inherent in being dependent on fossil fuels,” both because the world is going to eventually run out, as well as due to the fact that oil is still largely under the control of countries that are either politically unstable or hostile to the West, “there is a great interest in developing alternative fuels. The next 20 years is going to determine which alternative fuel ‘wins’ and becomes adopted on a wide-scale,” Herskowitz said.

The method developed by Herskowitz’s team is under consideration for a patent, and several studies are being prepared, the professor said. “We hope to have a demonstration unit ready in the coming months so we can demonstrate the feasibility of the system. What we have to do now is work on the economics of it, but I am positive that this will work out as well.”

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