Synthetic Fuel Panels (Codex Vagus: essay 04)

When I was 12 years old, I learned that coffee shops, which at the time served coffee for 500 yen a cup, were less profitable than ramen shops, which at the time served hot bowls of fresh ramen for the same price. This was because people expected more comfortable furniture, better dishware, more leg room, and overall better atmosphere in coffee shops. It was added that you couldn’t light the room with florescent lights either, you needed candescent lightbulbs which added to the electricity bills. I immediately asked why nobody had made florescent lights that were shaped so they could be screwed into lightbulb fixtures. Somebody said that I should patent the idea, but I never did. Maybe I should have. It was about five years before screw-on florescent lights hit the market.

Codex Vagus is the title I gave to essays unrelated to creative writing on this blog.

Codex Vagus: essay 04

Japanese people self-deprecatingly refer to home-grown technology as “Galapagos tech”. Like creatures that took a different evolutionary course on the isolated Galapagos Islands, Japanese domestic technology tend to develop differently under the influence of market demands and public interests that do not necessarily follow the trends of the rest of the world.

Green technology is no different. Toyota was the first to reach the market with hybrid vehicles, taking the world by surprise, but instead of going on to develop full electric vehicles like Tesla, it instead headed in the direction of hydrogen powered cars. Wind and solar power are all the rage in the West. Japan is still very much stuck in the hydroelectric era.

One of the alternate energy technologies that is gathering attention in Japan, but not so much in the West, is methanation. That is the method of making methane gas from hydrogen gas and carbon dioxide. Methane gas can be used to run cars and heat homes. It can also be stored more easily than electricity. Most taxi cabs in Japan already run on liquified natural gas. Artificial methane gas could be a serviceable replacement.

Methanation is not new. It has been around for nearly a century. The only hurdle was to find the right catalyst and to make it cost efficient. Large corporations like Hitachi are working on methanation plants to produce renewable gas fuels.

But given the right catalyst and the right conditions, you could skip the methane gas and make methanol from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. And methanol can be used to make synthetic gasoline. If you could make synthetic gasoline from air and water from sustainable energy like wind and solar, What would be the point of an electric car?

Toyota and other car manufacturers have a vested interest in developing synthetic gasoline. Not only would the shift from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles result in the loss of numerous jobs, the intellectual property held by Japan that will become useless in the switch to electric vehicles is numerous. A patent on, say, piston rings would be useless when all cars become electric. And yet, there is very little effort being made in this field.

But what if we could take this further. So far, methanation for producing methane gas and the methanol synthesis to make sustainable methanol are both envisioned as being done in large scale factories. Is it even practical to try to power such large plants with fickle energy sources like wind and solar? Large factories can provide economies of scale, but only when there is a steady and stable supply of raw materials and energy. Wind and solar tend to have ups and downs, which is why we need synthetic fuels in the first place.

What if the entire chemical process could be miniaturized. Thanks to advancements in integrated circuit technology, the same technology used to etch electrical circuits into a silicon wafer can be used to cut grooves that will serve as pipelines in a micro chemical plant. This plant-on-a-chip is called a “modularised microfluidic reactor”. And since many such devices are made of the same silicon that makes solar panels, a solar battery can be incorporated into the same chip. A panel made from a collection of such chips can be a self contained synthetic fuel factory dripping out teaspoons full of gasoline every hour.

You could argue that such a panel would be inefficient compared to a large chemical plant doing the same thing. But a large chemical plant would need to be powered by a steady stream of power, perhaps generated by a nuclear powerplant or a fossil fuel turbine. In a small, densely populated, and earthquake prone country like Japan, there is only a limited number of places where you could safely build a nuclear power plant. And fossil fuel power plants would defeat the purpose.

It pains me to think that nobody is currently working on this, even in the Galapagos tech world of Japan. A self-contained modularised microfluidic reactor and solar cell combination that produces synthetic gasoline from air, water, and sunlight is what the world desperately needs right now. Anyone who can pull it off will undoubtedly become a billionaire. Why isn’t anybody working on this?

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