Water, oil and science in new remix
…Science is attempting a duplicate scientific miracle in a new effort of turning water and its compounds into fuel.
The economics and politics of oil energy easily qualify as probably the most topical issue on the planet. Oil, which is sometimes masked behind ideology and strong rhetoric, is the root cause of most modern day wars.
The International Energy Agency estimates the worldwide average demand of oil and liquid fuels at around 96 million barrels per day. This amounts to over 15.2 billion liters of oil being consumed in one day alone. Given its strategic importance and the world's insatiable thirst for oil, the steady flow of affordable fuel and the search for alternative energy sources have become a global imperative.
The attempt to convert water into fuel is one of the manifestations of this new energy world order, and has quickly jumped off the pages of science fiction into actual experimental laboratories and far beyond the confines of the oil fields.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Masdar Institute have collaborated and moved a step closer to converting water into a fuel source through a scientific process that splits the water using rays from sunlight. To achieve optimal solar energy absorption, the water surface is configured in customized nanocones with precise tips of 100 nanometers in size. That way, more of the radiating sun energy can split the water into component fuel convertible elements. This reversible energy cycle will thus be using sunlight as the energy source for the photochemical splitting of water into storable oxygen and hydrogen.
The same technology principle is being applied by the research team to formulate carbon neutral energy. Since there are no naturally occurring geological hydrogen, production of hydrogen is presently dependent on natural gas and other fossil fuels from a high-energy process. The present research efforts could see a cleaner source of hydrogen being produced at a commercial scale in the near future.
The international scientific team behind this energy futurism project includes Dr. Jaime Viegas, assistant professor of microsystems engineering at Masdar Institute; Dr. Mustapha Jouiad, microscopy facility manager and principal research scientist at Masdar Institute and MIT’s professor of mechanical engineering, Dr. Sang-Gook Kim.
Similar scientific research is also taking place at Caltech and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), where they are developing a process that has the potential to fast track the discovery of solar fuel substitutes for oil, coal and other conventional fossil fuels. Like the MIT research, the process involves splitting water by extracting the hydrogen atoms from the water molecule and then combining it all over again along with the oxygen atom to produce hydrocarbon fuels. Photoanodes are the materials that are able to split water using solar power to create commercially viable solar fuels.
Over the last 40 years, only 16 of these low-cost and efficient photoanode materials have been found. The painstaking research at Berkeley Lab has led to the discovery of 12 promising new photoanodes to add to the previous 16. The hope for producing fuel from water through this application of science has therefore risen greatly.
From hope to reality
This water to fuel conversion endeavour has leaped even further from the science lab to the actual industrial production floor. Nordic Blue Crude, a Norway based company, has started producing high grade synthetic fuels and other fossil replacement products based on water, carbon dioxide and renewable energy. The Nordic Blue Crude bio fuel core team is made up of Harvard Lillebo, Lars Hillestad, Bjørn Bringedal and Terje Dyrstad. It’s a competent cluster of process industry engineering skills.
Germany’s leading energy engineering company, Sunfire GmbH, is the main industrial technology partner behind the project, using pioneer technology that converts water into synthetic fuels and provides rich access to clean carbon dioxide. The machine that converts water and carbon dioxide into synthetic petroleum-based fuel was launched by the company last year. The revolutionary machine and the world’s first, does the conversion into liquid hydrocarbons synthetic petrol, diesel, kerosene and liquid hydrocarbons, using state-of-the art power-to-liquid technology.
To get this groundbreaking new fuel into the marketplace more quickly and put into multiple applications, Sunfire has also partnered with some of the world's most influential corporations including Boeing, Lufthansa, Audi, L’Oreal and Total. Nico Ulbicht, a sales and marketing executive of the Dresden based company, confirmed that “the technology is still in development and not yet available on the market.”
Future oil alert and slippery road ahead
Another new development in the oil industry pioneered in the U.S. is poised to disrupt the global energy market in the long run. The new game changer is called fracking. Fracking is the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well.
The growth of fracking has been remarkable. According to the Energy Information Administration, over 50 per cent of the total oil production in U.S. is derived through this process, rather than the traditional form of drilling from oil wells. Fracking accounted for less than 2 per cent of the total U.S. oil production as of 2000. The number of fracking wells increased incredibly from a modest 23,000 to 300,000 within a 16-year period. Oil production through this process also skyrocketed from 102,000 barrels per day to a record 4.3 million barrels per day.
The jet speed processing time for fracking shale oil is the other distinguishing factor in fracking. While deep-water oil drilling takes a long period of time, the fracking process is far faster, thereby reducing cost of production to rock bottom low. Fracking is one of the major reasons for the steep fall in the price of oil, from $100 per barrel in its heydays to less than $49 currently. Though fracking has been severely criticised by environmentalists, the economics are too sweet to produce any change of track.
Investment banker, global economic analyst and chairman of Lead Capital, Prince Bimbo Olashore lauded the water to fuel initiative. He noted, “the survival and sustainability of our earth is based on moving away from fossil fuel to embracing renewable sources of energy. This is one attempt to finding alternatives which must be commended. I sincerely hope that while it is technically feasible it must be financially viable in the long run to make it a long term alternative source of energy to fossil fuel.”
He sounded an alert to the global oil industry. “For oil producing and exporting nations, they must realise that technological advances will make oil obsolete as a source of fuel just as coal also fizzled out. Diversification from oil revenues as a primary source of income is an imperative.”