Innovation, Magic: Gasoline Out of Thin Air?

Deven Desai

Deven Desai is an associate professor of law and ethics at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also the first, and to date, only Academic Research Counsel at Google, Inc., and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and the Yale Law School. Professor Desai’s scholarship examines how business interests, new technology, and economic theories shape privacy and intellectual property law and where those arguments explain productivity or where they fail to capture society’s interest in the free flow of information and development. His work has appeared in leading law reviews and journals including the Georgetown Law Journal, Minnesota Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, and U.C. Davis Law Review.

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4 Responses

  1. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22407-the-big-question-mark-over-gasoline-from-air.html stresses the important gotcha: does it take too much energy to produce this gasoline?

    The laws of thermodynamics — not often covered in law reviews! — tell us there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If burning gasoline, i.e., combining it with atmospheric oxygen, yields water and carbon dioxide (I’ll neglect the oxides of nitrogen that are formed; they’re mostly an undesirable side-effect) and (heat) energy, taking the water and carbon dioxide from the air to make gasoline _must_ require energy. Furthermore, unless there’s some other hidden energy input, it _must_ consume more energy to produce the gasoline than the gasoline liberates when being burned. The process _cannot_ be energy-positive; that’s Physics 101.

    Now — the fact that energy is required to make this says nothing about where it comes from, or just how much of a deficit the process has to run, merely that there has to be one. The article I cited noted the desire to use renewable energy sources to power this. That’s a great idea; take something like solar or wind energy — which are fine, and don’t produce carbon dioxide emissions — and use that to produce gasoline. You run at a loss, but it gives you a way to store the energy from, say, the sun. That’s been one of the very big problems with solar energy; we need lighting at night, when there’s no sunshine. Gasoline, it turns out, is a very efficient way to store energy; this scheme might be useful for that. (Have you ever noticed that most temporary highway alert signs have small gasoline-powered generators? Have you wondered why they don’t run on batteries? It turns out that gasoline is a much denser source of energy than batteries, even accounting for the size and cost of the motor and generator.) It’s also a great thing for places like remote tropical islands, which have plenty of sunshine but have to import motor vehicle fuel by tanker.

    If this scheme works, it’s a good way to convert intermittent but environmentally-friendly energy sources to something we can store. It’s a good way to produce motor fuel. It’s even a good way to produce a common motor fuel from natural gas, which is plentiful but not usable in most cars. (Natural gas has much worse energy density than gasoline, which is why cars that run on it need much larger tanks of gas than they would of gasoline.) But it’s not a solution to the world’s energy problems.

  2. Deven says:

    Steven,

    As I said they have not solved the energy part. But thanks for the additional points and clarifying the key one about can’t be energy positive. Can’t pull it out of the air, if you could that would be magic. The details about why this is cool are great so again thanks.

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    “The energy part” is almost the whole thing, though.

  4. Lea Shaver says:

    I’m not sure how the science of this works, but I can address the patent side. To answer your question, there is indeed precedent for an energy company having particular interest in patents surrounding a new technology that could displace it: the lightbulb.

    Around 1878, as Thomas Edison was beginning his work on electric light, the gas lighting interests were among his most important venture capital investors. Gas interests saw the likelihood of technological change displacing their current market, so they wanted in on the ground floor. The deal gave them an ownership interest in Edison’s future electric lighting patents, but squashing the technology was really not an option, because others were competing to develop it. Contrary to our tendency to assume a single piece of technology correlates to a single patent (i.e. “the lightbulb patent) there are typically hundreds of patent claims involved. This created a diffuse or fractured enough set of ownership claims on electric light technology that no one party had enough control to squash anything until much, much later in the game, when competition turned to consolidation. By then the technology was around to stay.

    More on this in my piece Illuminating Innovation, just out in the Washington & Lee Law Review: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1658643.