Friday, October 19, 2012...1:20 pm

Free, limitless energy from thin air! This week’s scientific breakthrough in journalism

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It’s time to tear myself away from the new term at the Open University (module S207 – The Physical World) to take a look at what passes for rigorous scientific and economic journalism in the nation press.

So, the Telegraph – on a fabulous new development in synthetic fuel: “British engineers produce amazing ‘petrol from air’ technology”.

A small company in the north of England has developed the “air capture” technology to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

It sounds wonderful. At last we can rid ourselves of our dependence on foreign oil, solve the problem of catastrophic, man-made global warming and bring those rocketing fuel bills right back down to earth for hard-working families – all at a single, British-engineered, high-tech stroke.

Wait. Let’s take a closer look at the story.

1. The science makes no sense
A prize to anyone who can actually explain what’s going on from the actual reporting.

The “petrol from air” technology involves taking sodium hydroxide and mixing it with carbon dioxide before “electrolysing” the sodium carbonate that it produces to form pure carbon dioxide.

So, we’re taking carbon dioxide and turning it into, uh, “pure” carbon dioxide. In case the carbon dioxide we started with is contaminated? Or are we separating the CO2 from ordinary air here?  And it’s not “electrolysing” like that’s some unknown new word nobody’s ever come across before. It’s just electrolysing, like we discovered how to do in 1800 (Wikipedia alert).

 2. Wait – how much energy did we put into this? For what return?
There’s a lot of electrolysis going on here: to make the carbon dioxide and to make hydrogen from water vapour. Electrolysis needs electricity. How much? We’re not told. What return are we getting? Apparently five litres of gasoline in “less than three months”.

I understand that this is research, not a viable industrial process. But it is still worth telling us how costly it is in energy and resources for a specified output so we can get a real sense of how big a breakthrough this is. If at all.

3. “Funded by a group of unnamed philanthropists”
Um – are we sure we can’t do better than some shadowy cabal of do-gooders? The company’s page on the Renewables Information Network says:

The company expects to take advantage of fiscal incentives for renewable energy and transport fuel, available in the UK, to develop and establish the technology

ie the UK taxpayer. Which sounds more plausible.

Bear in mind that if this really was a “game changer” in energy supply and the battle against climate change, the venture capitalists would already be beating a path to Teesside.

This isn’t a pop against Air Fuel Synthesis per se, (though I was amused to see that its registered headquarters of 94 Cleveland Road, Darlington used to be, apropos of nothing really, the headquarters of the Neuro Linguistic Psychotherapy & Councelling Association).

But, really – if you’re going to cover new and speculative technology companies:

  1. Make the science clear
  2. Do the economic sums
  3.  Ask who’s behind it and why

Which is kind of what basic journalism is supposed to be all about…

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