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Cars to run off the air we breathe

Carbon dioxide refineries could soon be as common as oil refineries with the possibility of converting air into fuel drawing increasingly nearer.

In March this year a team of 14 scientists from the universities of Bath, Bristol and the West of England were awarded a £1.4 million (€1.6 million) grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of Research Councils UK, to make this concept a reality.

The idea is for ‘air refineries’ to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and blend it with hydrocarbon to produce fuel.

Matthew Jones, a chemist at the University of Bath, said: ‘The basic idea is to take carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into chemicals, fuels and plastics that are today derived from hydrocarbons.’

Split into two sections the first part of the process involves developing metal-organic frameworks – powders designed to suck the CO2 out of the air by combining with the carbon dioxide. These frameworks can be developed to combine with the carbon dioxide and not other atmospheric elements such as oxygen and nitrogen.

The second part of the process will require finding a way to create hydrogen. Petra Cameron, another chemist at the University of Bath explained: ‘We need a sustainable source of hydrogen. Today that comes from [oil]. Algae fuel cells could be a source in the future.’

Jones is currently developing catalysts to convert the trapped carbon dioxide and the hydrogen into fuels.

Although scientists in the UK have only recently received funding to kick-start this project, Japan- and US-based researchers have been working on this concept for longer. The US Department of Energy has also been supporting similar projects with millions in funding.