With the ongoing debate about the sustainability of shorter flights and new taxes, aviation is clear: it needs to reduce its environmental footprint. There are already different options on the table to achieve this, such as electric or hydrogen ships, CO2 sequestration, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) or even reviving the old zeppelins.
Now the sector has just seen how a team of researchers takes a promising step that can help it obtain a CO2-neutral fuel and reduce the impact of flights on the environment. A step in which, everything is said, Spain has played an important role.
The group has designed a system capable of generating aviation fuel with water, carbon dioxide and sunlight. And, what is really important, it has managed to do it on such a scale that it allows pass the labs to which this type of technology had been limited until now.
“We are the first to demonstrate the entire chain of thermochemical processes from water and CO2 to kerosene in a fully integrated solar tower system, explains Professor Aldo Steinfeld of ETH Zurich, one of the researchers behind the project.
“A Pioneer Demonstration”
“With our solar technology, we have shown that we can produce synthetic kerosene from water and CO2 instead of deriving it from fossil fuels,” adds the expert, who has reflected the results together with his colleagues at Joule. The amount of CO2 emitted during the combustion of kerosene in a jet engine is equal to that consumed during its production in the solar plant. The result, he claims, is that the fuel is carbon neutral.
How have they achieved it? And what has been the role of Spain?
In 2017 the team began to expand its design and built a production plant in Spain, at the IMDEA Energy Institute, based in Madrid, which adds 169 reflective panels. Thanks to them, the experts redirect and concentrate the solar radiation in a solar reactor installed on top of a central tower, which, in turn, has a porous reusable ceria structure.
There, the water and CO2 injected into the reactor are converted into “syngas” or synthesis gas, an adapted mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Later that compound is passed to a gas-to-liquid state converter and transformed into hydrocarbon fuels. “The plant was operated with a configuration relevant to the industrial implementationwhich marks a technological milestone towards the production of sustainable aviation fuels”, emphasizes the expert from Zurich.
“The simultaneous decomposition of H2O and CO2 through a thermochemical oxidation/reduction cycle using ceria gives rise to a synthetic mixture of H2 and CO (called synthesis gas) with total selectivity, which is processed to obtain kerosene. The 50-volt solar reactor kW consists of a receptor cavity containing a reticulated porous structure directly exposed to an average concentration of solar flux of 2,500 kW/m2”, IMDEA specifies.
During the tests, the team achieved in nine days of operation an energy efficiency of the solar reactor of around 4%. Now the objective of Steinfeld and the rest of the team is to go further and exceed 15%. Among other options, they work on the optimization of the ceria structure.
The initiative is part of the EU’s SUN-to-LIQUID project and aims to take advantage of solar energy for the production of direct fuels, a synthetic alternative to fuels derived from fossil fuels. According to the team, the kerosene that comes out of their plant is “fully compatible” with today’s aviation infrastructure and can even be mixed with fossil kerosene.
The EU-project “Sun-to-Liquid” (https://t.co/amvNdufZNx) receives the Energy Globe World Award 2021: pic.twitter.com/Dz7y28brUO
— Aldo Steinfeld (@solarfuels) November 11, 2021
“It represents an advance in the level of technological development of the production of solar fuels by demonstrating the technical feasibility of the entire chain of the conversion process from solar radiation to liquid fuel”, claims IMDEA, and emphasizes: “It is a technological demonstration pioneer that represents a milestone on the path towards the sustainable production of aviation fuels”.
It is estimated that the aviation sector is responsible for 5% of the anthropogenic emissions that cause climate change. Today it relies heavily on kerosene, or jet fuel, a liquid hydrocarbon fuel that is often derived from crude oil.
Main Image | IMDEA Energy Institute
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