Carbon dioxide fuel plan vanishes into thin air

Hydrocarbon research yanked after results found to be the product of faulty equipment. Andrew Masterson reports.

The enticing possibility of extracting fuel from air turns out to be no more than a dream.
The enticing possibility of extracting fuel from air turns out to be no more than a dream.
Nazar Abbas Photography/Getty Images

Oops, that was awkward. A research paper describing the extraction of fuel-friendly hydrocarbons from atmospheric carbon dioxide has been retracted by its authors after they discovered that their method in fact didn’t work.

The 2016 paper, published in the journal PNAS, initially excited attention because it demonstrated a proof-of-concept wherein traces of commercially useful hydrocarbons were recovered from carbon dioxide after the gas was exposed to a titanium dioxide catalyst in a process known as “reverse combustion”.

Scaled up, the method, wrote lead author Frederick McDonnell from the University of Texas and his team, might “solve the world’s energy problems”.

Yet, as academic transparency site RetractionWatch reports, it was the business of scaling up, during additional research in 2017, that hipped McDonnell and his colleagues to the fact that something, somewhere, had gone very wrong.

Running the experiment using bigger quantities of everything resulted only in the same tiny quantity of hydrocarbons. Curious – and by this time worried – the team ran two additional experiments.

First, they repeated the process using lab-generated “pure” carbon dioxide that contained only carbon isotopes. It produced bupkiss.

Then they ran the job again, but this time using helium gas without any carbon dioxide at all. This – impossibly, it would seem – yielded traces of hydrocarbons.

It was at this point that the researchers concluded, sadly, and perhaps accompanied by the sound of hands slapping foreheads, that the hydrocarbons were the result of impurities contained within the titanium oxide catalyst.

Their proof-of-concept, initially so exciting, turned out to be proof of nothing at all.

McDonnell and his team – being diligent and responsible scientists – contacted the PNAS editors and requested the paper be formally withdrawn. Their wish was granted in January 2018.

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