Israeli scientists turn water into oil

By Nathan Jeffay, November 14, 2013
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A researcher at work in BGU’s Blechner Centre, where the process was developed

A researcher at work in BGU’s Blechner Centre, where the process was developed

Israeli scientists are claiming to have discovered a commercially marketable alternative to crude oil that could revolutionise energy usage within a decade.

On Wednesday, a team from Ben Gurion University unveiled a process to make an eco-friendly substance that will perform the same functions as oil.

The proto-fuel was created using a greenhouse gas and a chemical element that can be obtained from water.

“There is no magic here… this is viable,” said Moti Herskowitz, the chemical engineering professor who headed the research, just before publicising the discovery at the Bloomberg Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv.

Dr Herskowitz’s process — which is yet to be patented — involves mixing carbon dioxide with water and synthetic gas, and passing it through a special reactor to create a “green feed” made up of liquid and gas. This feed will be used as the raw material for the refineries of the future instead of oil, he claimed. He added that it will be used to produce petrol, jet fuel and diesel.

And while the scarcity of oil is a constant concern for world leaders, the ingredients for Dr Herskowitz’s “green feed” are in plentiful supply. Hydrogen can be obtained from water — comprised of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen atom — by “splitting” the chemical compound. And carbon dioxide can be “captured” from places where it is generated — an eco-friendly process as it means less of the gas is released into the environment. “This is a truly renewable fuel in terms of the environment,” said Dr Herskowitz.

While Dr Herskowitz has established the scientific basis for his process, he says that its true commercial potential will be realised in a few years. This is because various groups of scientists across the world are working on cheaper and more energy-efficient ways of dividing the elements within water, which is expected to bring down significantly the price of hydrogen derived from water.

“It’s all economics at the end of the day, because you’ve got to be competitive,” said Dr Herskowitz, who is in the process of establishing a start-up to bring the process to market.

“I believe that in five to ten years we’ll be able to be very competitive because of advances with water-splitting technologies.”

Professor Christopher Hardacre, a chemist at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “The efficient conversion of CO2 into fuel via reaction with H2 is very valuable and has the potential to be a significant development in the replacement of fossil fuels,” adding that the process developed by the BGU team was an “exciting prospect”.

Water-splitting has hitherto not been seen as sufficiently efficient to drive a viable fuel production process.

Last updated: 12:53pm, November 14 2013