Prometheus Fuels has made deals to deliver millions of gallons of carbon neutral fuel despite missed targets and skeptics.
Prometheus aims to remove CO2 from the air and turns it into zero net carbon fuel at a price as cheap as dirty gas. This fuel is “carbon neutral” because producing it uses only renewable energy sources.
This $1.5 billion startup develops direct air capture methods that filter CO2 to create commercially viable fuels.
The firm’s carbon capture method offers a great promise to replace oil and gas with zero net carbon fuels.
But many are skeptical if the energy startup can achieve its ambitious mission.
The Technology Behind Prometheus Carbon Neutral Fuel
The company calls its CO2 capture technology the Titan Fuel Forge. It’s a prototype that combines direct air capture and a novel nanotube membrane with a device that sucks CO2 from the air.
This unique system converts the captured CO2 into alcohol. Then it concentrates the alcohol to get rid of the energy-intensive distillation process.
In a year, a single Titan Fuel Forge can turn 900 tons of CO2 into 100,000 gallons of gas, diesel, and jet fuel. These fuels have identical molecules to the ones used in cars and planes.
Prometheus calls its final fuel electric fuels (e-fuels) with no agricultural inputs and no waste products. With this technology, the startup aims to reduce CO2 emissions by over 20 gigatons a year.
The image below shows the key processes involved in producing the firm’s e-fuels
A commercial-scale version of Prometheus carbon neutral fuel will use power from solar and wind energies.
Investors have poured money into the company. The firm says it has raised more than $50 million from various financing partners. The major ones are BMW’s investment arm, shipping giant Maersk, and Y Combinator.
Prometheus earned its Unicorn status with a $1.5 billion value after completing its venture round last year.
Yet, there are still many skeptics.
Prometheus Dubious Claims and Failed Promises
Last April, Prometheus said that it expects to have 500 carbon capture plants working by 2030. Together they can produce around 50 billion e-fuels a year and capture about 7 billion of CO2 by 2030.
If Prometheus carbon neutral fuels will be produced at the scale and cost ($3 a gallon) promised, it will indeed help address the climate crisis.
It will provide a cheap means to decarbonize the automobile and aviation industries. It can also help limit fossil fuel extractions and end oil refineries.
But a review from a team of experts is dubious of the company’s claims. Here’s a quick rundown of the major skeptical points of the company’s e-fuel claims.
Missed own targets.
Prometheus initially targeted to sell its carbon neutral fuels by 2020. But up until now, this hasn’t happened yet. And the firm still has to work on its device to produce fuels that can power cars today.
High costs of running the technology.
The unique carbon capture technology developed by Prometheus is straightforward chemistry. But the problem is that DAC equipment and electrolyzers are both expensive to make and run.
It needs considerable heat to separate the captured CO2 from the sorbents and concentrate the gas. Plus, it also takes a lot of electricity to power the electrolyzers.
A study on electrofuels found that with standard technologies, a gasoline equivalent would cost about $16.80 a gallon. And that’s even at a full commercial scale.
Such costs may fall to around $6.40 in the next decade and $3.60 by 2050. But this happens only with significant cost reductions in electricity and equipment used.
Solar and other clean energy costs.
Prometheus banks on its solar cost estimates: 2 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is due to the Los Angeles plan to buy renewable power for the said amount.
According to some, the unsubsidized cost of building and drawing power from a big solar project is around 3 cents/kWh.
Plus, relying fully on solar and wind power, which is the promise of Prometheus carbon neutral fuel, requires a couple of things.
The plants have to be very cheap, automated, and flexible to ramp up and down as electricity generation fluctuates.
Very aggressive process.
Lastly, the firm didn’t allow big venture capital firms with reputable carbon removal rigor to vet its scientific claims.
Experts in this field said that the costs and technical claims of Prometheus seem so unlikely. Making it a commercial reality will also take several years.
And most important, the firm has to be open in its processes and work under clear oversight and verification. This is to ensure that its fuels are carbon neutral indeed.
Investors Still Confident in Prometheus Carbon Neutral Fuel
Despite all those doubts and questions, Prometheus’ CEO and founder, McGinnis said that they’re all doing good. Delays are due to the pandemic and supply chain issues.
He further added that they’re not facing scientific challenges and responded that,
“There’s nothing between us and shipping fuel other than scaling… Skeptics that weren’t otherwise conflicted would be convinced if they had access to our data, models, and methods.”
The firm has also begun speaking with regulators about the steps they need to take to sell the fuel directly.
It will also use an impartial means of carbon neutral certification when it’s available. And that there will be more ways to verify how Prometheus carbon neutral fuels are produced, including a thorough analysis of the carbon.
Now that the firm has raised its Series B funding round, the CEO plans to hire quickly and move forward much faster. And Prometheus’ investors remain optimistic, too.
The chief executive at BMW i Ventures said that,
“If he (McGinnis) is successful, this is going to be a really big game-changer—and the odds aren’t against him.”
They’re confident that the firm is on track and that Prometheus carbon neutral fuel is “right around the corner.”
The firm plans to show its fuels later this year and may begin shipping them commercially in 2023.
Many other carbon removal startups are also in the same stage of perfecting and scaling up their carbon capture technologies.