Amazing! Fuel made of air and sunlight

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The Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich developed a solar plant capable of creating neutral fuels that would make air and sea transport sustainable

Crises are opportunities and this has been demonstrated by the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich (ETH). According to research by Swiss scientists, we would be one step closer to using fully sustainable fuels made of air and sunlight.

Leer en español: ¡Increíble! Combustible hecho de aire y luz solar

The researchers of this university developed a solar plant "to produce synthetic liquid fuels that release as much CO2 during its combustion as it is previously extracted from the air for its production. The CO2 and water are extracted directly from the ambient air and are divided using solar energy. This process produces syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which is then processed into kerosene, methanol or other hydrocarbons. These incorporated fuels are ready for use in the existing global transport infrastructure, "explains EurekAlert.

The research, led by Aldo Steinfeld, professor of renewable energies at ETH, demonstrates that it is possible to make carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels from sunlight and air. The scientist says that "the thermochemical process uses the entire solar spectrum and proceeds at high temperatures, which allows quick reactions and high efficiency."

What is the project about?

Currently, on the ETH roof, there is a mini solar refinery that produces about one deciliter of this fuel per day. The technology used has shown that it is feasible to produce carbon-neutral fuel, even in climatic conditions such as those in Zurich. The next step, according to EurekAlert, is a large-scale reactor in a solar tower near Madrid, Spain.

The results are incredible and although the project has not been carried to great scales, it is expected that in the future this method will lead to the production of 20 thousand liters of kerosene per day. Philipp Furler, Steinfeld's former doctoral student and director of Synhelion, says that "theoretically, a plant the size of Switzerland, or a third of the Mojave desert in California, could cover the kerosene needs of the entire aviation industry. Our goal for the future is to produce sustainable fuels with our technology and, thereby, mitigate global CO2 emissions. "


Una publicación compartida de ONU Medio Ambiente (@onumedioambiente) el

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How does it work?

The process has 3 steps:

  1. Extraction of CO2 from water and air
  2. Thermochemical fractionation of CO2 and water
  3. Liquefaction (transition from a component of gaseous state to liquid state) later in hydrocarbons

According to the study, "CO2 and water are extracted directly from the ambient air through an adsorption/desorption process. Both are fed to the solar reactor at the focus of a parabolic reflector. Solar radiation is concentrated by a factor of 3,000, generating process heat at a temperature of 1,500 degrees Celsius inside the solar reactor. At the heart of the solar reactor is a ceramic structure made of cerium oxide, which allows a two-step reaction, the redox cycle, to divide water and CO2 into synthesis gas. This mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide can then be processed into liquid hydrocarbon fuels through conventional methanol or Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. "

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It's not just a study

In addition to the academic experiment, there are already two spin-offs. In 2010, the CLIMEWORKS company was founded, dedicated to capturing CO2 from the air. Climeworks plants capture CO2 inside filters that are then heated to high temperatures and then CO2 is collected as gas for commercialization. Then, the CO2 free air is released to the atmosphere and the cycle starts again.

The second spin-off is Synhelion, a company that is dedicated to the production of fuel from solar energy and hopes to "replace fossil fuels with CO2-neutral and economically viable insertion fuels, which are 100% compatible with the current global fuel infrastructure."


LatinAmerican Post | Marcela Peñaloza

Translated from "¡Increíble! Combustible hecho de aire y luz solar"

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