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Calling all Stinks experts

So, here’s the process being used by Porsche:

The resulting renewable electricity is used to electrolyse water into oxygen and hydrogen with electrolysers from Siemens Energy. The “green” hydrogen is then combined with carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere to form synthetic methanol. Consisting of four parts hydrogen, one part oxygen and one part carbon, methanol is seen as an excellent hydrogen carrier. This process would be done with an MAN-supplied methanol synthesis reactor based on a Johnson Matthey design.

The methanol is converted into synthetic pump fuel using a methanol-to-gasoline process by Exxon Mobil’s fluid-bed methanol-to-liquid-fuel process, in which methanol feedstock is vapourised and superheated through a series of heat exchangers then fed into the fluid-bed reactor for conversion into hydrocarbons and water. The heat required is partly provided from heat generated in other parts of the production process such as the electrolysers. The resulting fuel will then be shipped to Europe.

This produces petrol at about €2 a litre. This would mean that jet fuel could be made at a price which keeps jet engines going even if it makes every airline moan like Meghan.

But here’s the thing. ICE, cars, we’d need to get that down to about 50 cents per litre to make it really a drop in replacement for fossil derived petrol.

So, is that possible.

At which point we’ve two, perhaps three, entirely different processes here. It’s standard in Stinks processing that volume matters. Double the size of the plant and halve production costs. Just the way that economies of scale seem to work. So, in that sense using all these big engineering companies makes perfect sense.

The second though is that we know that large engineering companies can be grossly wasteful. Johnson Matthey, one of that list, just dropped £500 million through being a big company developing a process. In the actual lived experience of one reader here they were pretty good, slow, late and expensive. Effectively (and I cannot recall which of the management book triad this appears in, Parkinsons, Up the Org or Peter Principle) bigcompanyitis, as with the easiest way of bankrupting a small company is to bring in a large co CEO who redisigns the bathroom, creates the executive office and doesn’t hustle.

The third is, well, which part of that process is it viable for a start up to try to disrupt? Some entirely new look at how to do that bit?

Now, my bet is that this is going to come into play:

No one will ever have an unassailable lead in a specific piece of tech. Simply because the existence of it shows everyone else that it’s possible.

We now know that renewables plus Stinks gives us something close to economic for jet fuel (and I would insist that, compared to the alternatives of no flights, or battery planes etc, this is in fact economic), a little further away for ICE. So, now just marvel as the world’s engineering minds go to work on the costs there.

This is assuming that the current set up suffers from that bigcompanyitis. An assumption, not a certainty.

And what would we want as the end game? One alternative is that the economies of scale in Stinks win. So we get vast factories of this type by Saharan wind farms, Chilean windmills and the world is much as it is now – a centralised transport energy system. The other though, which I consider far more interesting, is that it’s possible to do it the other way around. A technique sufficiently efficient at the point of production that generation of petrol becomes distributed. Everyone has one in their back garden hooked up to a solar cell.

And that’s where we need Stinks experts. There are certain minimal costs that we cannot wish away – the energy that has to be put into these chemical reactions. The big question then becomes the efficiency – ie, how much energy do we have to use to make those essential reactions happen – with which we do so.

So, what’s the optimal size of such a system? And can one be designed that is efficient while distributed? Sorta the size of those plants that make derv from chip oil in a converted garage?

The actual answer I’ve no idea about. But it would just be such, such, fun to see petrol become that cottage industry so beloved of the hippies. Beloved except for the petrol bit that is.

36 thoughts on “Calling all Stinks experts”

  1. Definitely not an expert, Tim. But if I had to do this, I’d simply add a nuke to every refinery, extract the CO2 and the H2 from air and water, and keep the system running on hydrocarbon fuels. The market and some super-geniuses would eventually readjust the system to whatever worked best.

    Yeah. I was a bureaucrat though.

  2. A technique sufficiently efficient at the point of production that generation of petrol becomes distributed. Everyone has one in their back garden hooked up to a solar cell.

    From a little experience of something analogous, sure you can set up to generate your own “free” electricity with a windmill & solar. But the capital cost of doing so pushes the free part so far into the future, it’s cheaper just buying leccy off the grid.
    And a word of caution. You start knocking up motor fuel in yer back garden, you can count on the government coming after you for taxes. They do have previous on this. There’s a limit on how much alcohol you can brew before you become tax liable

  3. the capital cost of doing so pushes the free part so far into the future, it’s cheaper just buying leccy off the grid

    True now, maybe not so much when the grid is dependent on windmills and wishful thinking….

    I keep hoping that one disastrous winter will lead to some sort of peasants revolt against Net Zero, but I’m less and less confident. It seems more likely that the mob would lynch someone for keeping the fire on overnight than lynch the people who are cutting the gas off.

  4. MC – I keep hoping that one disastrous winter will lead to some sort of peasants revolt against Net Zero, but I’m less and less confident. It seems more likely that the mob would lynch someone for keeping the fire on overnight than lynch the people who are cutting the gas off

    I think that’s what beat the optimism out of Daniel Hannan, the realisation during lockdown that most of our compatriots are cowardly fools.

    If they were told to wear a mask up their bum, a large percentage of them would do it, and boast about being #BumSafe on social media.

  5. There is a National Geographic (I think) video somewhere in the interweb of an interview by one of their reporters doing a piece with a bloke from the North east (of England) already running a plant producing petrol and diesel from atmospheric CO2 which he says he can produce at a price competitive with current pump prices. The blokey was no way a nutter. The fuel is both carbon neutral (as if CO2 was a bad thing…) and very clean – no impurities – unlike mineral oil. He says that he cannot understand why ‘people’ (aka the powers that be) are not beating a path to his door. Needless to say the video is hard to find. And obviously ‘we’ know exactly why TPTB are not beating a path to his door. Oh, and he says he uses ‘sustainable’ electricity…. I
    If anyone can find the video that would be helpful.

  6. The way I see things, there are two potential models here:

    (1) plant that runs 24x7x365 using dedicated generation
    (2) plant that runs intermittently when electricity costs are low/negative

    Of these, (2) is suitable for the “cottage industry” discussed. Unfortunately all the current methods of creating industrial methanol require at least one of:

    – very high temperatures (800°C+) — impractical to turn on/off at will, economies of scale of plant
    – high pressures — high capital cost and economies of scale of plant, specialist maintenance and handling procedures needed
    – expensive catalysts — high capital cost
    – nasty (toxic/corrosive etc.) catalysts and/or intermediates — specialist maintenance and handling procedures needed

    Now, those are all the industrial processes I know about that are in development or production. Note the “industrial”. There could be an easier and less capital-intensive process out there that I haven’t found any papers on, but has not generated much interest because it is inefficient… but if you are using excess generation that is free or that you’re even being paid to take away then efficiency becomes far less of a concern.

  7. @MrVA
    There’s nothing new about the stinks. Kim Stanley Robinson had his Mars colonists running the processes in his books 30 years ago. So yeah, you could build a plant in your shed. But how much actual fuel is it producing & what capital & labour cost?
    As Tim says, it’s an economy of scale thing. Porche wouldn’t seem to have it yet.
    And one does wonder. Maybe it’s going the milkfloat & heatpump route because influential vested interests see a lot of benefit to them in doing so. Think of the car manufacturers. It may be a very expensive exercise for them to go the battery electric route. But a car company itself is an intellectual fiction. It’s actually comprised of individual people. So maybe there’s a section of those people see benefit to themselves in doing it & have gained the influence to push it. To them, the purpose of the company is to make them money. Not cars.

  8. Steve,

    Yarp. My failed attempt at standing for office (and various anti-lockdown candidates that I knew). We all got a few votes.

    I didn’t expect to win, but I really thought the politicians were out of line with the public and first opportunity to exercise choice, a lot would vote to end it.

    It rather changed my take on what most people are like. I have zero interest in being involved in politics at any level now. The public really take little interest in how 40% of their money gets spent, what laws are created etc etc. They broadly knew that Corbyn was a wrong ‘un, which is something, but that’s about the limit of it.

  9. Chemistry always bored me to tears, all those elements and Avogadro’s law and frosty middle aged teachers and whatnot. History tells you more about what human beings might do.

    Between the 1960’s and 1980’s, the paranoid lunatic running Albania decided to spend most of what little wealth his country had on concrete bunkers.

    750,000 bunkers, to be precise. It cost twice as much as the Maginot Line, and used three times as much concrete. Albania had many chronic economic problems at the time, including a terrible shortage of modern housing. With the resources they spent on fortifications, they could’ve built every Albanian family a brand new house.

    To add insult, the bunkers were completely useless for their stated purpose of national defence. (The Albanian military knew this, and their Defence Minister said so, publicly. So Hoxha had him killed and initiated a brutal purge of the army.)

    We probably won’t be killed for pointing out Net Zero is an insane waste of resources that our debt-laden economy can’t afford, and that it will do exactly nothing to change global weather patterns, but otherwise the parallels are spooky.

  10. Chemistry always bored me to tears
    You were obviously reading the wrong chemistry books, Steve. If you’d read the ones showed you how to cook recreational pharmaceuticals out of easily obtained feedstocks you might have had an entirely different & profitable attitude to it.

  11. BoM4 – I’d have voted for you.

    BiS – when I were a lad, we used TRADITIONAL British methods of partying (cheap cider)

  12. “Wind powered site in Chile.. ”

    Then it’s total bollocks.

    This sort of thing is being driven by ideology, which pretty well guarantees that it will all end in tears.

    Can’t blame Porsche for doing it though, as they are pretty well being forced to. Just hope their plan B’s for when all these “green” fantasies come crashing down are robust

  13. Why go through all the step. Why not skip one. Why bother combining CO2 and H with the expense of the energy required to generate the H. Why not go back to the old method of manufacturing of Methanol and distill wood. Drax burns it, so using wood must be a green process.

  14. Steve. Traditional would be psilocybe cubensis. Magic mushrooms. Utilised in your tragically rain swept isles long before alcohol was brewed. And I have known people in the UK who are vociferously anti-drugs who see nothing wrong with brewing up mushroom tea, the result of their gathering in the cow pasture.

  15. Does the process enable production of the full array of petrochemicals at non-disruptive prices? If it doesn’t why not make a hole in the ground and get them essentially free*

    If it can be done in the backyard to enable private control over fuel production, it WILL be banned. If the hypothetical coffee-machine sized Mr Fusion is ever available, that will be banned too. Wealth is available power. We control it, you can’t have it.

    * Well, if wind and solar are free, so’s oil.

  16. Steve

    I think that’s what beat the optimism out of Daniel Hannan, the realisation during lockdown that most of our compatriots are cowardly fools.

    If they were told to wear a mask up their bum, a large percentage of them would do it, and boast about being #BumSafe on social media.

    Purely anecdotal but, based on my observations, most I knew were more manipulated or brain-washed than cowardly. The difference being that there is potential hope if the former, but little if the latter. I know some who have concluded most strongly they’re not doing that crap again. I guess time will tell – the need to conform/be part of the in-group/not stand out, when they are lied to wrt shit hitting fans, can be overwhelming for many…

  17. Is it possible that Porsche, a manufacturer of aspirational cars, not trucks or vans or econoboxes, is worried about its own future based on the take-up of its EVs compared to the cost and effort of building them. Most people are scornful or suspicious of EV ownership. They also do not trust the powers-that-be to keep the subsidies and tax breaks going when the tax take for all vehicles goes down. Many carmakers are in the same boat, or bus. They do not make EVs out of chasing profit or technological superiority but because they must to stay in business when petrol cars are banned, which is bot far off now. The damned idiot politicians who decided ICE cars were to be banned in some time in the infinite future like 2030 have gone. The current set can see that date a mere seven years away and no effective plan to get people to change as the incentives to do so (subsidy, tax break and fuel economy) evaporate while the disincentives (cost, inconvenience, range, doubts about battery life) remain or grow. Add to that the total impossibility of electrical generation handling the load imposed by charging and you just know the plan is going to fold sooner or later and the best option for an individual who needs their mobility is to get a decent petrol or diesel car and run it for as long as they can.

  18. My feeling is that home-grown petroleum will be silimar to home-grown vegetables. Yes, there’s something delicious about fresh spuds straight out of the garden, but unless your garden is several hundred acres of Lincolnshire the efficiencies of mass-produced shop-bought is always going to outweight home-grown.

    I don’t think it will get to the level of my collecting rain water to flush the bog. Fifty quid of parts put in the roof space above the bathroom compared to about a fiver a month saved on the water bill.

  19. Rhoda: I’m just on the outside looking in, but I detect a subtle but distinct change in the attitude of car manufacturers. A few years back, Porsche made a big thing of pulling out of all traditional motorsport and jumping into Formula E, the ridiculous electric series, with both feet. This was to be The Future of Porsche. But over the last few months, it’s become increasingly frustrated that its bid to join Formula 1 has stalled (although its stablemate Audi will take part from 2026). And just yesterday, the slimmed-down, eco-friendly, lower-case-gm General Motors announced its first ever F1 programme, with Andretti-Cadillac. Hyundai’s also rumoured to want in on the action, and there’s talk of Ford making a tentative return too.

    F1 runs hybrid powertrains these days, to be sure, but the new rules for 2026 will actually reduce the electrical side of the equation (for reasons of cost). They’ll be using “sustainable” fuels though, whatever that means, so that’s all right then. Point is, given the life-cycle of the technical regulations, they’ll definitely still be burning hydrocarbons well into the 2030s, and the major manufacturers are queuing up to join as I’ve never seen them in forty years of watching the thing.

  20. Magic mushrooms are a marvellous free resource. A mate of mine made a charming liqueur by steeping 1,500 in a litre bottle of vodka with a little sugar for a few months. It was surprisingly pleasant to drink and the effects remarkable. Not as nice as my late father’s damson gin, but good stuff nonetheless.

  21. Michael Steiner, Porsche’s board member for research and development, describes the process differently to what the telegraph has reported. He says
    “The hydrogen is then combined with carbon captured from the air or industrial sources to synthesize methanol, which in turn can then be converted into longer hydrocarbons to be used as fuel”.

    Just no point to this then, the CO2 is going to come from burning things then added to H2 to be burned again.

    Running the Haber-Bosch process or making cement using electricity much more interesting if the CO2 needs to stop going up(?). And as for Porsche, if the Tel is right and they really can capture CO2 from the air, then do that, make a solid carbohydrate (sugar, starch or a 12 carbon alcohol) and chuck it in old mines.
    Imv of course

  22. BIS

    The blokey was very clear, his process was scalable now. And would produced good fuel at scale and at a competitive price.

  23. We probably won’t be killed for pointing out Net Zero is an insane waste of resources

    Are you sure Steve? The rhetoric has become progressively more apocalyptic over the years, along with the rise of direct action nutters who TPTB seem to tacitly endorse. Will the nutters start to turn into vigilantes?

    As for chemistry, you missed some amusement. I was more into the faster exothermic kind of reactions rather than BiS’s pharmaceuticals (though meth has an explosive reputation). The problem with the latter is controlling the impurity levels in a garage operation, especially the ones that prompt the wrong sort of body reactions.

  24. One thing we can be sure of is that some PPE or gender studies graduate in the Dept of Energy thinks xe knows the best chemistry, so will spunk gazoodles of our money on a bunch of spivs who will tailor the emperor’s new clothes.

  25. SBML, The methanol from wood “distillation” was a byproduct, actual waste, they suddenly found a use for.

    The actual goal at the time was to get high quality charcoal ( obvious use ) and wood tar ( wood preservation and sundries ).
    The methanol you get from that process is also pretty much riddled with other volatile Nasties, so you can’t feed it into anything directly. You’ll need to purify that methanol, because those Nasties will bugger up any subsequent Indignities you have planned for that methanol.

    If you want to muck around with biomass, that pilot plant in the UK our Host had a mention of a while back is your better bet. But bioreactors are even more finicky than chemical reactors, as any home brewer knoweth.

  26. I’ve signed enough confidentiality promises over the years that I’m not venturing forth on this topic save for one thing. A few times I said informally to different firms “the real breakthrough would be to devise a fuel cell that could use methanol”. All replied “but nobody knows how to do that”, or “that’s impossible”, or the like.

    Maybe they’d tried and failed or maybe they meant “we hadn’t thought of that so we dismiss it out of hand”. But I look at the astonishing progress in batteries in the last few decades and wonder about the potential for such progress in fuel cells. I mean, a transport fuel that you could use to generate electricity without using a “heat engine”. That would be something: the methanol could be simply an intermediate for converting nuclear electricity to lorry/ship/aircraft motor electricity.

  27. Wile it’s perfectly possible to make a reactor on Porsche’s process in, say, a self-contained fridge format, it is something you do not want as a backyard/shed unit everywhere.

    Because humans are stupid.
    People will mess about with the control software to get “higher efficiency” ( or even to see if they could fvck everything up..), and post it as a “Lifehack” on the usual channels. Which the bigger idiots will take up as a challenge. Much “Lulz!” will ensue…

    And that’s not considering the idiots who will build something around the thing “because it is ugly”, in a way that prevents the net O2 output from the electrolysis step to bleed off. With inevitable results…

    Or…. Never, ever underestimate the power of human stupidity. It will not fail to disappoint in many, many inventive ways.

  28. @dearieme Direct methanol fuel cells are perfectly possible.

    Efficient and affordable methanol fuel cells capable of powering things directly? … Wellll……

  29. @Steve – “Chemistry always bored me to tears”

    You need a lab with better ventilation and maybe PPE.

  30. The cost of getting CO2 out of the air will make this prohibitive. You either have to (expensively) cool the air or run at the 0.05%, which would be wildly inefficient.

    It might be scalable attached to a source of concentrated CO2.

    And, as pointed out above, it can only be done efficiently with large scale reliable power.

    So attached to a coal station, perhaps. Which sort of destroys the purpose.

  31. Not necessarily coal power.. Using a similar process you can also produce methane, and there’s plenty of established tech we have that uses that..

    The whole trick here is to treat the whole process as a “negative-entropy” engine, not dissimilar to how all life works.
    Since the unforgivingness of the laws of thermodynamics whatever you do you must always put more energy in than you get out of it. Entropy, after all, must increase, doubly so if your aim is to create negative entropy locally.

    The economic feasibility of any scheme of this type is limited almost solely by the cost of the energy required to be poured into the process. Besides the cost of the initial setup of the reactors/maintenance, the input materials have neglible costs. Water is everywhere, so is CO2.
    You can argue that getting that 0.05% CO2 out is limiting, but you don’t need to cool air that much to get the CO2 out.
    And when you can provide energy at the base cost needed to make the whole process commercially feasible, it might well be cheaper to get that 0.05% from the air than going through the rigmarole of piping it in from an industrial source. As is, dry ice is already cheap enough to use for party tricks in cocktail bars and stuff. And that’s with pretty expensive energy..

    The whole trick is to set up things that you can do the Triple Whammy: Methane, Methanol, Ammonia.
    From that point on you can basically do anything, and proceed to synthesise any carbon chain you need.
    If you want to make things really efficient you can even toss in some tricks to generate electricity along the way from the waste heat.

    But you do need that cheap-as-possible energy/entropy generator, and the only technically feasible solution we have at this point are nuclear reactors.
    Which is a fun way to drive the Greenies mad.. The one technology we have that actually makes their “Saving the Planet” possible is actually the one thing they hate the most..
    Then again.. I’ve yet to encounter the first Greenie that actually understands thermodynamics, and the application thereof in chemistry, including biology, so…

  32. “The hydrogen is then combined with carbon captured from the air or industrial sources to synthesize methanol”

    “The cost of getting CO2 out of the air will make this prohibitive. You either have to (expensively) cool the air or run at the 0.05%, which would be wildly inefficient.”

    You could capture CO2 from the flue gas of processes that are being run anyway, such as the exhaust of a power station.

  33. Some bloke on't t'internet

    I recall going to a public talk on this quite some years ago now – collect CO2 from the atmosphere by getting it to react with potassium hydroxide (?) to form “something I don’t recall”, then add H2 which would convert the something to methanol and potassium hydroxide. It really comes down to having a “green” supply of H2 which is really the stumbling block for most of these “hydrogen economy will be great” ideas. Since CO2 will distribute itself around the world, you can site the plant wherever the economies dictate – a combination of H2 supply (or lecky supply for the electrolysis) and distribution.
    The big advantage of methanol over things like hydrogen is that with a little care in things like seal material choice (easy to design in from the outset) and some software tweaks (again, easy to design in from the outset) – pretty well all modern cars could run fully flex-fuel and accept any mix of petrol, ethanol, methanol. And since methanol is liquid without doing anything fancy to it, we already have all the infrastructure to store it, transport it, and dispense it. It’s safer than petrol or diesel : it (if pure) barely has any flame, little radiant heat so much of the damage from a fire is eliminated; if you ingest or aspirate it, then the treatment is a good dose of ethanol to saturate the system and prevent metabolism of the methanol before it gets excreted plus a doe of (IIRC) potassium to avoid the alcohol poisoning from the ethanol (if you aspirate diesel, which is a good possibility as you throw up if you ingest it, then it coats the lining of the lungs and the treatment is a lot of O2 and hope that you can absorb enough to stay alive while your system deals with the coating in the lungs).
    Or of course, you can feed the methanol into other processes to create other things – such as petrol, or … tada … plastics. And if you landfill the plastic at EoL then you’ve locked up the carbon you originally sequestered from the atmosphere and thus made the cycle carbon-negative.

    As to running the process from intermittent sources, that might not be too bad. For a fixed installation, hydrogen isn’t too bad to store – it just takes a lot of space if you don’t liquify it or compress it to high pressures. So you can buffer the H2 output from the intermittent lecky source – at least to some extent, I guess you might struggle if the wind doesn’t blow for a couple of weeks (winter static high pressure zone). Of course, if we can get past the bad press (vested interests who persist in equating western designs with that of Chernobyl, or those who persist in equating civil nuclear power with mushroom clouds), then a load of nuclear would work – and the electrolysis plant could act as a variable load to level out the peaks and troughs in demand (see above about storing the hydrogen as a buffer).

    And lets not forget, petrol and diesel – or methanol as a substitute in a suitably modified (the mods are trivial for a carb engine, mapping changes for an EFI) – is superb as a mobile energy transfer medium. It has a high energy storage density (both by volume and mass), can be transferred rapidly (the effective energy flow rate while using a standard petrol pump is mind boggling), the supply and distribution network is already in place and mature, and we already have a century of knowledge of building ever cleaner* and more efficient power plants (or just big fun ones !).
    * If you ignore the inevitable “design to pass the very specific regulatory limits but run efficiently the rest fo the time” issue with diesel engine manufacturers (I suspect all will be found eventually to have done that since the regulatory limits and decent performance and economy are more or less mutually exclusive).

  34. @CJNerd : Even a gas power station can produce at most 1/3 CO2 by volume flue gas, and some of them already send the hot exhaust gasses off elsewhere such as greenhouses.
    Whether you’re extracting from 0.05% or 33.3% you’ve still got to extract the CO2. And if you extract from the hot 33.3% stuff, you’ve got to pay a price higher than the peeps getting it already.

  35. Carbon Recycling International does produce methanol from CO2 and H2. But it recovers the CO2 from the flue gas of one of Iceland’s geothermal power plants, which also provides the electricity to produce the H2.

  36. IIUI the Icelandics at CRI drill bore holes – the steam that comes out contains some CO2, just as a volcano releases CO2 previously captured in the earth’s crust – some 1/10th of that released CO2 is recaptured to make so-called renewable methanol.
    It’s a net emitter, unless i’m missing something.
    Makes the sponsors feel good i suppose.

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