Researchers are turning the sun and air into climate-neutral fuels

Synthetic fuels have been the subject of intense discussion for a number of years. In theory, they can make an important contribution to climate protection. Because up until now crude oil has been extracted from the ground to produce fuel. However, when it is burned, CO2 emissions result, which have a negative carbon footprint. That is why aviation, among other things, has come under fire and is desperately looking for alternatives. So-called e-fuels could help. These are artificially produced and absorb exactly as much CO2 as is later released during the combustion process. So it is a zero-sum climate control game. In practice, however, the production methods presented so far are too expensive, too complex and too energy-intensive to be able to compete with classic kerosene. The first airlines are therefore experimenting with synthetic fuels. So far, however, these have not yet been used on a large scale. But that is exactly what would be necessary in order to make a significant contribution to climate protection.

Image: Alessandro Della Bella / ETH Z├╝rich

The concentrated sunlight ensures high temperatures

Researchers at ETH Zurich have therefore dealt with the question of how production can be simplified. In fact, they have now been able to present a three-step process in which synthetic fuels can be obtained from the air with the help of sunlight. The researchers are already operating their first small production facility. This is located on the roof of your laboratory and consists of three chambers. In the first, air is drawn in from the environment. From this, carbon dioxide and water are extracted and fed into the second chamber. This is irradiated with concentrated sunlight using a parabolic mirror. This creates temperatures of around 1,500 degrees Celsius inside. This in turn sets chemical reactions in motion that produce a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The latter can then either be used directly. Or the gas is fed into the third chamber, where it is then turned into methanol, kerosene or another combustible fuel.


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Solar thermal power plants could serve as a model

The pilot system on the roof proves that the concept doesn’t just work in theory. On the contrary: the small production facility runs error-free for seven hours every day. However, the output is not yet really large. Currently 32 milliliters of methanol can be produced per day. In order to produce significant quantities, however, the process would have to be rolled out on an industrial scale. This could then look a little like a solar thermal power plant. Large mirrors would direct the sunlight onto a tower in the middle, in which the chemical reactions would take place. However, this entails a certain amount of space required. The researchers have calculated that around 45,000 square kilometers would be needed to produce enough synthetic fuels for all air traffic. In addition, this process is also more expensive than the classic production of kerosene. The researchers involved are therefore pushing for state funding.

Via: ETH Zurich

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