Fuel for airplanes manufactured only with air and sunlight

This 2016 photo shows the world’s first four-seater passenger plane, the Hy4, powered solely by a hydrogen fuel cell system. Researchers from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) developed the aircraft’s powertrain and worked on the project with industrial and research partners. – © DLR

To advance cleaner fuel, what if airplane fuel could be created from sunlight and air? This is a field of research studied by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, based in Switzerland, in the form of a new type of solar reactor.

The result of this research question saw the design of a plant that can produce carbon neutral liquid fuels from sunlight and air (by extracting water from the air). The next stages of the research will see the technology brought to an industrial scale.

Swiss scientists called the result of their experiments “solar kerosene” (kerosene, a derivative of petroleum, widely used as a fuel in aviation). The prototype plant can produce enough synthetic liquid fuels that release as much carbon dioxide when burned as was previously extracted from the air for their production.

Through the thermochemical process, carbon dioxide and water are extracted directly from the ambient air and then divided using solar energy. The reaction creates “synthesis gas”, which is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

The resulting mixture is then converted into kerosene, methanol or other hydrocarbons. These fuels can be used for a variety of industrial applications.

Not only is the fuel “green”, it is also relatively inexpensive. Researchers estimate that the fuel would cost 1.20 to 2 euros per liter if produced on an industrial scale. A suitable location for a large-scale factory would be a desert region, with high solar resources.

the Airbus factory. – Photo: © AFP

The researchers also predict that their technology would allow the world to meet its demand for jet fuel using less than one percent of drylands. In addition, unlike biofuels, the process would not compete with the production of food or feed.

Another sustainable element is that the materials used to build the production facilities, such as glass and steel, can also be made using renewable energy and carbon neutral methods.

For such a project to come to fruition, it would take considerable government support and initial grants to shift the market in favor of solar fuels. This would be necessary until solar kerosene makes a breakthrough in the market.

The research appears in the journal Nature, with the study entitled “Drop-in Fuels from Sunlight and Air. Nature.”

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