In the world of Greek mythology, Prometheus is credited with stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. In similar fashion, the California startup Prometheus Fuels is looking to do the impossible and perfect a process that turns air into gasoline. Impossible you say? Hardly. According to Prometheus’ founder Rob McGinnis, “It can sound like magic, but it’s really just chemistry.”

Prometheus Fuels uses an electrochemical process that starts with CO2 from the air to form carbonic acid. This acid is then converted to carbon monoxide and carbon hydroxide. When electricity is added, the carbon monoxide reacts with water to make ethanol. While electricity is required, it can be generated using renewable sources such as wind and solar. This gives Prometheus’ an environmental advantage over traditional gas companies, although it doesn’t solve the problem of emissions created when gas is burned.

McGinnis is an interesting character. After enlisting in the Navy he was deployed to Bahrain during the Gulf War where he was responsible for clearing mines from harbors. Upon transitioning to civilian life, McGinnis decided that he was going to perfect the water desalination process while in a college chemistry class. He came up with a method that uses forward osmosis in the process and later helped found Oasys Water to commercialize his method.

After selling Oasys Water to a Chinese company, McGinnis set his sights on developing synthetic gasoline. His idea isn’t a new one. In the 1920s, chemists in Germany discovered that it was possible to turn coal into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This mixture could then be turned into gasoline using heat and pressure. McGinnis’s method is unique because it doesn’t use heat, pressure, or coal.

McGinnis has friends who believe in his potential. Last December, he received money from YCombinator, a California venture capital firm, to build a prototype for his method. “We have conviction that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to remove CO2 from the air and transform it into something else useful or figure out how to store it safely, long-term. They may seem like moonshots now, but our goal is to try and come up with a technically feasible solution at realistic cost,” said YCombinator spokesperson Sam Altman on the company’s blog.

While McGinnis’ project may seem far fetched to some, experts warn against writing-off dreamers like him. Senior Research Scholar at the Center On Global Energy Policy at Columbia University Julio Freidmann told Bloomberg in an interview earlier this year that it is worth trying anything we can.“There are many companies that have broken their spears on this,” he said. “There are so many companies that were like, ‘We’re going to make something that’s going to compete with gasoline,’ and they’re dead.” While Freidmann did not comment specifically on Prometheus, he did note that when it comes to replacing gasoline, “If it takes us 70 years to displace the incumbent, we lose. That’s not good.”

Let’s hope for the planet’s sake, it doesn’t.

What do our readers think about Rob McGinnis and his idea? Could gasoline ever be made using only air and electricity or are we doomed to be slaves to fossil-fuels forever? Please leave us a comment and let us know.

Source | Image: Wikimedia Commons