back to article Germans plan to make 'synthetic natural' gas from CO2

Remorseless German and Austrian boffins have a cunning new plan which could be good news for cutting down on fossil fuel use: they can make "synthetic natural gas" using electric power, water and carbon dioxide. "Our demonstration system in Stuttgart splits water using electrolysis. The result is hydrogen and oxygen," explains …


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  1. mafoo

    50 years time...

    The headlines will be "Amazon rain forrest threatened by Lack of CO2"

  2. Kevin Johnston

    Problems where?

    How can there be problems getting the CO2 when we have been repeatedly beaten over the head with plans to pump it all into underground storage in caverns the size of umpty million Olympic swimming pools at vast costs through unproven techniques.

    Don't tell me they were fibbing?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Er, what now?

      I'm guessing this is some sort of a joke?

      You'd be wanting clean CO2 to go into the system, not combined with all the other crap that comes out of a exhaust\chimney.

  3. Dirk Koopman

    you don't mean diesel..

    You mean petrol engines.

    Unless you count lowering the compression ratio of the head, then helicoiling the injector holes for spark plugs, oh and coping with the increased rev range a petrol^HLNG engine has as "simple".

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: you don't mean diesel..

      Yes, I pointed that one out last time they said it round here. Guess it fell on deaf ears.

      I suppose it pisses off the CO2 freaks when you point out that the shiny, new oil-burners they're pushing can't be easily converted to run on an enormously wide variety of renewable / cleaner power sources like petrol cars can.

      Oh, you'd need the injector holes for LNG injectors, so you'd have to drill new ones for the plugs. You'd need to swap the ECU and add coils, crank position sensors et. al. too. Trying to get it to run "dual fuel" while LNG availability became widespread would be an entertaining exercise. All in all, it'd almost certainly be far cheaper and simpler to rip the lump out and shove in a petrol one.

      The really funny side of this would be that the big losers were this to take off would be the, er, German car industry. The Japanese heavy investment in efficient petrol / gas (very big on CNG / LPG / LNG they are) engines would pay dividends, leaving the diesel-fixated Germans several years of expensive development up a blind alley.

      1. Steven Raith

        LPG-diesel - you're slightly more than half right.

        You can actually inject LPG into diesel engines to increase the burn efficiency and power - rather like nitrous oxide injection on petrol cars. LPG injection on diesels can increase fuel economy noticeably, according to reports. Quick google here, but there's more info around.

        A chum is an industrial diesel engineer and approves of This Sort Of Thing.

        However, you rightly state that without adding a firing system [spark plugs, and related HT and timing ancillaries etc] you can't run a diesel car solely on LNG/LPG - unless you can increase the volatility of the fuel to ignite with nothing more than heat and pressure. Diesel does this at fairly low pressures and heats - LPG/LNG, not so much as far as I am aware.

        So you guys are slightly more than half right.

        But yes, adding LPG/LNG to a petrol car as a *primary* fuel source is far, far simpler, as you are just replacing the fuel, not the entire ignition system - you just need a kit, and a certified gas tech to install it.


        Steven R

        1. Oninoshiko


          Sounds to me like they where completely right as noone was talking about using useing LPG/Diesel mixed as a fuel.

          I dont think I've seen that much in automobiles, but in the generator industry i have seen mixing with natural gas for this reason. also has the benifit if an earthquake hits and takes out the underground pipes delivering the NG, you can still run on full diesel until it is repaired (at higher fuel, personal, and enviromental costs).

          (i've been shopping for big generators recently)

  4. Sampler

    Screw the CO2

    Why not just produce Hydrogen for Hydrogen powered cars? That way you get a nice supply of H which you can tax like petrol to maintain the government income unlike direct electricity as then home use would be astronmical.

    No need to harvest CO2 for making methane, job done, you can send me the cheque in the post.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      Hydrogen's got a pathetic volumetric energy density, making it useless for- say- cars unless you want to have hugely expensive gas tanks or a very limited range. By expensive I mean "inch-thick 5000PSI housing carved from a single block of Titanium". Very expensive.

      Methane's much better- for a given volume at a given pressure it stores vastly more energy.

      Plus there's an issue of distribution- there's already methane distribution systems all over the place. For a start a lot of these (especially old ones) are steel or iron and would become brittle if filled with Hydrogen.

      After that, you'd have to convert everything that works off Methane to work on Hydrogen. Got a generator? Oh, it needs an expensive overhaul. Got a car with steel anywhere in contact with fuels? Needs to be replaced.

      Not to mention that creating Hydrogen through electrolysis creates a load of nasty sludgy stuff if you use seawater (which we would).

      I look forwards to my consultancy cheque- my fees may be exorbitant but at least you survive.

      1. Chemist

        Re : Nope

        I think electrochemical cells used for this probably use extremely expensive Nafion superacid membranes to separate the anode/cathode compartments. The feedstock, which I'm guessing would be water with something like suphuric acid, and I think would need to be pretty pure. Certainly not raw sea-water as this would generate chlorine gas.

        Just an organic chemist so may be way off on this.

        By the way the energy efficiency of electrolysis is ~~50-70%

    2. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Parallel infrastructure

      Why go to all the bother of distributing hydrogen when we have lovely efficient ways of moving gas and oil around the World? This project could simply push its products into the existing infrastructure.

  5. Paul Hates Handles
    Thumb Up

    German technology!

    Is there NOTHING those people can't do with gas? :)

    1. Anonymous Coward

      German Scientists

      are getting so much better

      Now they're turning Gas into Juice.

      Previously they were just trying to get Gas into... no, I'm not going to finish that :P

    2. Noons

      choose one:

      PHH, enough camp jokes already...

      Flames because of the Hindenburg, of course.

  6. Richard Porter

    Why methane?

    One aspect the article hasn't addressed is 'why convert hydrogen to methane?' OK, you can stuff it down the gas main, but hydrogen can be used as a fuel for vehicles using fuel cells.

  7. blackcat

    Hydrogen vs LPG

    Its much easier to store and transport methane as it can be kept as a liquid at room temperatures and sane pressures. Hydrogen can't. And a fuel 600x as dense as hydrogen makes much more sense.

  8. Geoff Campbell


    Diesel cars can be converted to LNG quite easily - older mechanically injected ones, anyway. Simply disconnect the throttle cable so that the engine runs on tickover all the time, then inject variable amounts of gas into the air intake. The diesel then provides the ignition, whilst the majority fuel is methane (or propane, more normally).

    Methane rather than Hydrogen as it has a higher energy density, and is *way* easier to store and transport than hydrogen, which has an inconvenient habit of escaping through most materials and requiring huge pressures, as well.

    Which brings me on to my original point - I'd prefer propane to methane. More energy dense, much, much easier to transport or store, and for car use, the supply infrastructure and vehicle conversions are already there, and have been for decades so are nicely mature. Propane is very similar to methane chemically, for those who skipped chemistry at school - methane is CH4, propane is C3H8, i.e. the same hydrogen and carbon ingredients in a slightly different shape.


    1. Natalie Gritpants Silver badge

      Re: Propane is very similar to methane chemically

      I suspect you were sleeping during chemistry, they're about as similar as oxygen and chlorine are, just a few numbers. And please don't try to distil your own whisky.

      1. Chemist

        Re: Propane is very similar to methane chemically

        That's like saying wood is chemically similar to sugar. What do you put in your coffee.

        The trick unfortunately is getting the 3 carbon atoms to join together

      2. Paul 4

        Not realy

        Considering oxygen and chlorine are totaly diffrent elements, rather than diffrent molecules with the same elements. CH4 and C3H8 are not that diffrent in oxidation reactions.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Methane and propane are similar

        They are both alkanes (saturated hydrocarbons)

        If you take methane and apply the correct chemcical process you can produce propane.

        If you take oxygen and apply chemical processes you still have oxygen and no effing chlorine.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re : Methane and propane are similar →

          Could we have a link to this process ?

    2. MJI Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      And me too

      I can run my car on the stuff

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    what about the O2?

    The process produces O2 as waste - best use for it would be to burn the methane with.

    How about a (largely closed system)

    CO2 + 2x H20 + spare electricity = CH4 + 2x O2

    put these two into storage and at later stage

    CH4 + 2x O2 = CO2 + H20 plus heat

    capture the waste gases and put back into top.

    1. James Hughes 1


      You may not have noticed this, but there is plenty of 02 around all the time. No point in storing it when you can use stuff out of the air.

    2. The Cube

      Yes, ze Germans could use this gas propellant and oxidiser

      that they collect from the process to fuel a new generation of V3 rockets.....

    3. Daniel Evans

      O2 worth more sold?

      Wonder if they'd rather capture the O2, and then sell it off bottled (for hospitals, oxyacetylene torches, etc.) - might make a few pennies on the side. Plenty of O2 hanging around in the atmosphere to nab for combusting your CH4 (assuming Gas plants do actually use bog-standard air for combustion, ofc.).

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Missing a couple angles while drumming the nuke drum

    I don't know what the overall energy efficiency is --including fetching the carbon out of the air--, but as long as it's reasonably positive, it's not a bad plan. This is all very experimental so I'd expect efficiency to increase as research progresses, and as such promising enough to keep looking into it. But the thing is, there's big gas fields, now mostly empty, in the north sea and the north of the Netherlands, that could stand filling up a bit. So that's one.

    And the other? Well, hydrogen doesn't store worth a damn. LNG is dead easy by comparison and that alone is worth a couple percent points of efficiency.

  11. Daf L

    @Lewis Paying to get on the grid?

    " renewables operators pay to get their power onto the grid"

    Do you mean they actually pay to be allowed to supply the grid with electricity or that the (initial/ongoing?) costs of supplying it is greater than the income from it?

  12. Filippo Silver badge

    60%+ efficiency... actually pretty damn impressive! I've always thought that if you used electricity to make methane, and then burned the methane to get electricity, you'd waste damn near all of the power. Kudos!

    Of course, it seems that the 60% quote assumes readily-available CO2, which is a problem. Despite that, this is interesting tech, potentially very useful.

  13. PixelPusher220

    Efficiency of free?

    The article says that overcoming the 40% efficiency loss would be hard. I disagree, it's actually a very very easy prospect. Since the 'fuel' is free (just need energy to create the fuel), all that is necessary is adding infrastructure to scale up enough green generation to match average demand. Peaks are met with storage.

    That's a far cry easier than trying to find, process and refine ever increasing amounts of fuel.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      100% efficent, eh?

      So what you're saying is, to jump that last little 40% efficiency loss hurdle and make a device thats 100% efficient is a 'very very easy prospect'. Well woot! Just need to add 1 more % and you'll have perpetual motion, and then we're all saved!! You must be like the best engineer ever!!!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        No - they don't mean that!

        They mean it doesn't matter that it's only 40% effiicient.

        (lots of thickies out today)

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is yet another example...

    Of UK Civil/Government servants losing the plot. There is NOTHING TECHNICALLY NEW in this idea! The only new thing is that the Germans exploited it before we did - but that is not really new either.

    On the edge of Europe we have massive wind, tidal and wave power available to use. We have had "ducks" & "snakes" and what have you for years - in prototype - but have been unable to get funding for full scale development. We have gas wells that could be re-filled.

    It aggravates me to distraction that our technologists and engineers cannot or will not be funded by banks (!!!) and UK Governments to develop the ideas yet these self same British owned organisations are quite content to sell off or see them sold off to continental (Portugal, Spain, Nordic) for exploitation and then buy them back later at a higher price.

    Why? Can someone help me with something other than bogus economic or conspiracy theories, please. It has to be something more than crass stupidity or greed but I can't work it out.

    1. JeffShortland

      I can agree to that..

      Here in Canada, it's been the same way for some time, though just as soon as you actually manage to impliment something like this, you get simpletons going off the deep end about the damage it's doing. You know the lot; the people that bitch about wanting cleaner, more renewable resources and power measures, but then don't like them when they get them.. Tidal power has been a big one round' where I used to live. Despite tidal power being a vaible idea for years, suddenly someone gets the idea to stick a generator in the highest rising bay in the world, BRILLIANT. but then, the infrastructure derails it, it's gets toppled with people concerned the big bad tidal power will eat all the fish that incidently don't even live in that reigon, and the like..

      It's funny that.

    2. Ian Stephenson

      Never attribute to malice...

      ..what is adequately explained by stupidity.

      Beer because no big brother or black helicopter conspiracy involved.

      1. Phil 54
        Black Helicopters

        Not to mention

        the idiots who say windmills cause "headaches and increased inattentiveness". ( )

        "Sorry officer, I ran into your car and bumped my head whilst looking at the pretty, pretty windmill. Ooohhhh spinny!"

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "It aggravates me to distraction that our technologists and engineers cannot or will not be funded by banks (!!!) and UK Governments to develop the ideas yet these self same British owned organisations are quite content to sell off or see them sold off to continental (Portugal, Spain, Nordic) for exploitation and then buy them back later at a higher price."

      I think you'll find it has quite a lot to do with something called "Return on Investment." The UK governments level is or was something pretty stupid and UK banks is.

      A look at the history of UK developed ferroelectric (no DC power LCD. Like eInk but potentially allowing TV level frame rates) is instructive.

      Technology 18-24 months ahead of the world (That's a monopoly position) but needed the funding for effectively a new LCD factory for volume production. Break even in 3 year.

      Too long.

      You'll find that ROI and the UK banking industry (personal loans, funding bridges across the bospherous no problem) explain and the traditional problems of scientists and developers communicating with them and forming teams to handle the less interesting (but vital) nuts and bolts of *running* a company explain a lot about UK failures to implement profitable (as opposed to novel) technology.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      They just don't work at the moment. All of the off shore power genaration methods keep braking. Banks won't pay because the buisnesses are not viable without massive green subs.

      The only conspiracy theories are the ones your putting in...

  15. Steven Jones

    why not use the hydrogen direct...

    Uhmm - would it not be far more thermodynamically efficient and simplere to just to store the hydrogen from the electrolysis and use that. Admittedly you can't pipe the stuff to appliances which burn natural gas, and hydrogen tends to be able to leak rather easier than the larger methane molecules, but if this is a short term storage system for using surplus renewable energy and using it during peak periods or when renewals have failed, then it strikes me as a lot easier to do without having to concentrate CO2. Yes, you need separate storage facilities, but if it's only used for centralised electricity production, then that's surely not such an issue.

    The hydrogen storage route would be at its most efficient if large scale fuel cells could be used, but failing that I'm pretty sure a gas turbine could make use of the stuff - they generally run on almost anything and a dual natural gas/hydrogen device of this sort is surely possible.

  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Not quite as bonkers as I thought

    At first I was comparing it with traditional Methane production methods (thermochemical, biological) which are very well known.

    But as a way to convert electricity into a storeable, moveable form and plugging it into a large *existing* infrastructure it may be close to perfect.

    To H2 lovers. It's a *nightmare* to store and transport. Short term storage would have to be *very* short term. So far its room temp high pressure (5000psi in carbon fibre overwrapped tanks. Not quite the 1 piece Titanium but not exactly cheap) or liquefy at -253c.

    To Propane lovers. RTFA. Propane was *not* the object of this research. However that's not to say that under a different set of conditions (possibly a catalyst) Propane could not be made as well.

    The joker in the pack is the bulk CO2 supply. However given CO2's inertness you *could* run a pipe to each generator (wind turbine, PV array etc) from a bulk CO2 source, tap off some CO2 and inject the newly made Methane back into the same pipe.

    It's a tricky solution, but maybe it's the simplest solution which meets *all* the non obvious problems that start to come out of the wood work when you try to implement "green" energy for real.

  17. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Some additional facts

    In a recent copy of the German issue of Technology Review there was an article on the research done by the Frauenhofer into such combined powerplants - with the gas coming from bio mass. The articile [1] stated that solar + wind + gas powerplants are able to provide all the power needed all the time.

    This week the national evironmental committee came out in favour [2] a 100% renewable energy policy by 2050 without additional nuclear or coal power stations.

    And this was without the massive (and controversial because bloody expensive) expansion off-shore wind. [3]

    Lewis, can you please tell us again why we need nuclear?

    [1] (April)



    1. Dirk Koopman

      re: Some additional facts

      Because there isn't enough room in the UK for all the windmills that one would need to supply all the electrical power that we will need to replace the oil and coal that we are trying to avoid using. People tend to conveniently forget that bit.

      Having said that, windmill -> methane is much more useful and utilitarian power system than pumped storage or batteries.

      Germany is a much bigger country, but actually it has less wind/sq km than the UK and also, the Germans are assuming that their population will let the power companies cover the countryside with windmills. Don't think that will happen much more easily than it will here. I am sorry but I don't believe they can a) achieve the numbers of windmills b) the efficiencies (far higher than currently achievable) and c) the population buyin.

      Personally, I like the RIGHT SORT of nuclear power. I am talking thorium and other low enriched uranium reactors that actually consume 99% of their fuel instead of 5% and leave horrible dirty mess for someone else to clean up. But then that will require some vested interests to be ignored... I'd happily have a 200Kw thorium reactor buried in my garden.


      1. Hans 1
        Thumb Up


        They have a real-life example of this system in use in Stade (Lower Saxony - Niedersachsen), where the needs are covered 100% only on green energy. The want to roll it out nation-wide.

        I used to live near there when I was a kid, they had a nuclear power plant there, if I am not mistaken ...

    2. Mostor Astrakan
      IT Angle

      Yay windmills.

      I notice that Greenpeace suggests wind energy prominently in their plans for a clean future. So... Can we get rid of gas energy plants and replace them with windmills? Let's see.

      Your average STEG-type energy plant, such as the one planned in Diemen in the Netherlands (Unit 34), can produce at the same time 500 megawatts of electricity and an additional 250 megawatts of heat, which is piped to people's homes. Keep in mind that there's also Unit 33 at that site, which does 266 MW electrical, 180 MW thermal. Year-round, all-weather.

      For some reason, I've never been able to get a very clear answer to the question: "How much power does a wind turbine produce?" Partly due, no doubt, to the wind being inconveniently variable. We should invent better wind. Still, I've found a web page. It has figures on it. I'll use them.

      According to HowStuffWorks, a wind turbine with a rotor diameter of 80m. can produce 2.5 megawatts (and what a pleasure it is to work with a unit where you can actually convert kilo to mega by dividing by 1000, without all the "commercial" fluff, but I digress).

      So you would need two hundred wind turbines with an 80m rotor to replace one single STEG plant. That's assuming that the windmills would always produce their maximum output, which they don't. It also ignores the 250 MW of heat, which would be another hundred or so windmills.

      There would hardly be any place left to live anymore, I think.




  18. Eirikur Eiriksson

    Sorry to spoil our scoop

    but it looks like Carbon Recycling International (CRI) has been doing this for some time (

  19. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    @Eirkur Eiriksson

    The CRI technology looks further along but there is an existing Methane distribution network. However the *option* to make *either* which are both important chemical feedstocks and fuels, would definitely add flexibility to the options.

    Both look like good retrofits to existing fossil fuel power plants. I note they share the electrolysis of water to get Hydrogen as the feedstock.

  20. Maurice Shakeshaft

    Points about RoI taken.

    However, our Government/banks are quite prepared to invest/spend £Billions on NHS IT, identity cards and some aspects of road and air transport infrastructure and PPP & PFI projects were a very dubious case for RoI is made yet, because they technically can't or wont understand the importance of Energy independence in the 21 century, are quite prepared to buy in solutions from abroad. The "duck" and "snake" and "tidal power" ideas have been developed and would not be being exploited in Scandinavian if they kept breaking. They may need refinement but that is just what the Japanese did to UK car designs and industrial processes and we now have no significant UK owned indigenous road vehicle manufacturing (racing cars aside! and we do make some important components).

    There is a strong argument for improving the UK engineers approach to business management if we are to fully exploit the UK technological developments but this is a chicken and egg situation, surely?

    If we don't make the investment in developing and trying to commercialise engineering in the UK then we will be condemning future generations to a '3rd world' economics because we will have little intellectual property to exploit into commercial ideas.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Maurice Shaekshaft

      "However, our Government/banks are quite prepared to invest/spend £Billions on NHS IT, identity cards and some aspects of road and air transport infrastructure and PPP & PFI projects were a very dubious case for RoI is made "

      Well several of those relate to Government projects and given the fight it's taken to pull even a *few* of the traffic light reviews on the ID cards from the grasp of the relevant office RoI has *never* been discussed. As for PPP/PFI projects the financiers have bleated on about how little they make and (again due to Government policy) the civil servants have been instructed *not* to argue this is BS. According to at least 1 documentary the drill is, raise the cash for the school/hospital/bus station etc then do a re-financing which turns decades of risk in decades of substantial profit.

      "The "duck" and "snake" and "tidal power" ideas have been developed and would not be being exploited in Scandinavian if they kept breaking. "

      This again comes down to government policy and IIRC a stunningly biased report from Harwell in the mid-late 70s. BTW You might like to not the 20GW of tidal and wave power systems being trialed in 10 projects by the Scottish Parliament.

      "There is a strong argument for improving the UK engineers approach to business management if we are to fully exploit the UK technological developments but this is a chicken and egg situation, surely?"

      Why. *Not* improving it virtually guarantees should a UK engineer come up with a profitable idea they will be nearly clueless as to how to exploit it. Coupled with the ongoing "Starting a business is not for the likes of us" mentality. This leaves most such ideas in the hands of investors. A case in point has been the observation that their are *very* few UK based *global* pharmaceutical companies, *mainly* because where one has produced a viable (or apparently viable) product it has typically been sold off to the first big pharma player the investors could find. The idea of *gasp* going it *alone* to form their *own* conglomerate is *far* too risky to UK investors.

      "If we don't make the investment in developing and trying to commercialise engineering in the UK then we will be condemning future generations to a '3rd world' economics because we will have little intellectual property to exploit into commercial ideas."

      Agreed. It's rarely mentioned in economics text books that the share market does *not* create money. It *convinces* people to hand some of theirs over to someone because they *believe* they will get something which will become more valuable in time. OTOH it may turn out to be completely worthless.

      Agriculture, mining and manufacturing OTOH turn raw materials (as raw as soil, air and water in the case of farming) into cash.

      But that's hard work. Just a thought.

  21. Patrick R

    LPG cars; spark ignition, LNG cars; compression ignition.

    At least that's what it says here:

  22. Geoff Campbell

    LNG compression ignition

    Fair enough. I've only ever come across CNG used in spark ignition engines, but I guess the ignition point must be low enough to work in diesel engines as the sole fuel, then.


  23. Anonymous Coward

    What low-carbon future?

    "...a low-carbon future wouldn't offer any such exhausts to harvest."

    But a low-carbon future would be unnecessary if we could extract the carbon from the combustion emissions.

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