Scientists at the University of Southern California are making fuel out of thin air.

According to the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, a team led by G.K. Surya Prakash and George Olah has developed a method to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) - the primary gas humans create - into methanol, a fuel which is cleaner-burning and safer than fossil fuels.

Turning CO2 into gas would be a boon to our atmosphere. It currently accounts for 82 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. And much of that comes from burning fossil fuels. So turning CO2 into fuel would be a 1-2 punch to climate change: it would mean burning fewer fossil fuels, and using up some of the waste we created by burning them in the first place.

"We need to learn to manage carbon. That is the future," said Prakash, professor of chemistry and director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, in a press release.

Their alternative fuel method involves heating a mixture of air, water, and a chemical called pentaethylenehexamine. The CO2 bubbles into the mixture (think blowing through your straw) and then eventually settles and mixes, converting 79 percent of the CO2 into the desired methanol. All the chemists must do at that point is separate the methanol from the water. According to Prakash, the method is quite simple.

Don't go looking for air-based fuel just yet, though. The special methanol is still too expensive to offer as a consumer alternative to crude oil. But with enough support, the chemists hope it will be used in the industrial setting in five to 10 years. 

"We will run out of oil and gas, but the sun will be there for another 5 billion years," said Prakash. "So we need to be better at taking advantage of it as a resource."

The research was published Dec. 29, 2015, in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Photo: Charlie D. | Flickr

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