Scientists are now making jet fuel from sun and air

Jet fuel from sun and air

When there’s a will, there’s a way – or so they say! Lowering carbon emissions has been an uphill battle for many years now. Still, greater commitments are being made and progress is finally being achieved. 

New ideas have been put forward at the World Economic Forum, and you’d think they have come out of thin air on a sunny day! In fact, scientists in Switzerland have recently created a carbon-neutral jet fuel using the light of the sun and air. Arguably the best thing about this innovation is the fact that the process of creating the fuel itself is carbon neutral. This is because the amount of CO2 absorbed during production is equal to the amount emitted when combusted. The hope is that this fuel, from production to consumption, could be a source of sustainable fuel for ships and trucks, as well as planes.

Something from “nothing”

Professor Aldo Steinfeld and his team of researchers at ETH Zurich are the creative force behind the industrial plant that absorbs CO2 from air and water. So, where does the sunlight come in, you ask? Well, precisely solar energy is used to split the extracted compounds and produce syngas, which is a mixture of hydrogen molecules and CO2. These combustible, volatile gasses are further processed to generate methanol and kerosene. This can then be used as fuel that is compatible with existing aircraft.

Aviation is responsible for only 3% of all human-produced CO2 emissions, but decarbonization changes made here can still significantly affect the world at large. This is why sustainable jet fuel is such an important innovation to take into account, especially when choosing which way we want to travel in the future.

While the technology is ready to be used in commercial operations, the infrastructure to produce it is still lacking, and scalability is still a distant dream. A project to build an industrial-scale plant is on the way in Germany however, and this solar fuel operation is set to go live in 2023. Another piece of good news is that the solar panels needed can and must be set up in deserted desert areas. This leaves good, arable land free for agricultural use; this is in stark contrast to biofuels, for example.

With everything new, beginnings are the most tender times. One of the challenges when it comes to making this climate-friendly initiative both competitive and scalable is to also make sure it’s cost-effective.

Nature magazine has published a study that estimated that this new “solar kerosene” would cost between €1.20-€2.00 per litre once production scales up. A further problem is the initial investment, which is always a risk since the business model is based on theory. There is hope that the EU might help out airlines with such initiatives. One way it can do that is by helping finance the scaling up of sustainable technological innovations.

With over 60 companies joining forces with the World Economic Forum and their Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition, there is no doubt that change is possible. Collaboration across industries, thoughtful innovations and real commitment will help the world reach its 2050 net-zero CO2 target. As they say – when there’s a will, there’s always a way!

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