A team of scientists have become the first people to ever complete an entire process of using solar power to convert water and carbon dioxide into a jet fuel that could feasibly be used by commercial airlines.
Experts say that carbon-neutral air travel is one of the biggest missing links in the potential for a future without fossil fuels, and this could be one of the first steps towards an alternative solution.
Philipp Furler, who worked on the study, said: “Oil is a limited resource; at some point you will run out. What we propose is another route to the same chemical, using solar energy.”
Channeling the solar desert heat equivalent to ’3000 suns’ into a solar reactor, the SOLAR-JET project just became the first in history to complete the entire process of producing kerosene from start to finish without natural gas or coal.
And researchers say this type of manufacturing could fuel centuries of air travel, not just the decades that fossil fuel can promise.
This is because the feedstock of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water is essentially unlimited on our planet.
The process of converting H2O and C2O into kerosene works by concentrating the solar thermal energy into a solar reactor at 1500 degrees Celcius.
This splits the input elements into carbon monoxide (known as syngas), which is then sent to Shell Global Solutions in Amsterdam.
Then the product is put through the Fischer-Tropsch process - a series of chemical reactions that change them into liquid hydrocarbons - and is refined into kerosene.
The scientists performed 295 consecutive cycles like this in a 4 kW solar reactor, which yielded 700 standard litres of syngas.
Furler says it would only require a small change to current laws to allow kerosene produced by solar energy into the airline market.
Currently syngas is derived from natural gas or coal, and as a result, Furler says this would be a huge challenge to that industry: “Industrial-scale jet fuel production from solar thermochemical splitting would be disruptive for the fossil fuel industry.
Nevertheless, Furler believes that the fossil energy industry will have an interest in substituting a solar process for jet fuel.
He added: “I am very convinced that it will be the case that conventional fuels will be punished by CO2 taxes in the future.”