Solar Jet Fuel — Kerosene From Sunlight, Water, & CO2

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For the first time ever, researchers from the EU-funded SOLAR-JET project have succeeded in creating “solar” jet fuel (kerosene) from practically nothing but water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide (CO2).

The new means of producing jet fuel could “revolutionize the future of aviation” — according to the researchers, anyway. The new process can also be (potentially) used to produce a number of other types of fuel — including diesel, gasoline, and/or pure hydrogen.

Artist's rendering of the functional principle. Image Credit: SOLAR-JET
Artist’s rendering of the functional principle.
Image Credit: SOLAR-JET

“Increasing environmental and supply security issues are leading the aviation sector to seek alternative fuels which can be used interchangeably with today’s jet fuel, so-called drop-in solutions,” explained Dr Andreas Sizmann, the project coordinator at Bauhaus Luftfahrt. “With this first-ever proof-of-concept for ‘solar’ kerosene, the SOLAR-JET project has made a major step towards truly sustainable fuels with virtually unlimited feedstocks in the future.”

The new process relies on the utilization of a redox cycle with metal-oxide-based materials at high temperatures, which uses concentrated sunlight to convert CO2 and water to a synthesis gas (syngas). This syngas is, essentially, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide — this is then converted into kerosene via already available commercial Fischer-Tropsch technology.

“The solar reactor technology features enhanced radiative heat transfer and fast reaction kinetics, which are crucial for maximizing the solar-to-fuel energy conversion efficiency,” stated Professor Aldo Steinfeld, leading the fundamental research and development of the solar reactor at ETH Zürich.

While the solar-driven part of this process is new, as stated before, the processing of syngas to kerosene has been around (and commercialized) for some time now. By combining the two, though, a potential path to a “sustainable and scalable supply of renewable aviation fuel” brings a new possibility. Of course, economics will be the determining factor in whether such a path is viable or not.

“This is potentially a very interesting novel pathway to liquid hydrocarbon fuels using focussed solar power,” noted Professor Hans Geerlings at Shell. “Although the individual steps of the process have previously been demonstrated at various scales, no attempt had been made previously to integrate the end-to-end system. We look forward to working with the project partners to drive forward research and development in the next phase of the project on such an ambitious emerging technology.”

The SOLAR-JET (Solar chemical reactor demonstration and Optimization for Long-term Availability of Renewable JET fuel) project was launched in June 2011 and is being partially funded by the European Union under the 7th Framework Programme for a period of four years.

In related news, another approach to the issue of finding/developing replacements for the high-performance fuels currently derived from fossil fuels, biofuel production, recently took a big step forward thanks to researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Joint BioEnergy Institute. Researchers at these institutions succeeded in creating a new high-energy biofuel that could potentially replace or supplement expensive missile fuels currently in-use, such as JP10.

Also, even further along and more promising is some halophyte biofuel research being conducted by Masdar Institute, Boeing, Etihad Airways, and others. CleanTechnica‘s exclusive coverage of that biofuel research is linked above, and a follow-up is coming shortly.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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