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Energy, News, Technology

Flying on Air, and Sunlight

Abhinav Raj

Abhinav Raj, Writer
@uxconnections

Six years ago, Solar Impulse 2 showed the world that it was possible to fly around the world on solar energy. Now, scientists have found a way to source carbon-neutral fuel from sunlight and air.

One of the biggest challenges facing the world today is keeping our planet habitable for generations—by keeping our carbon emissions in check. 

Through policies and sustainability goals, the world governments seek to address the climate emergency by dramatically reducing dependence on carbon-based fuels, however, each sector of the economy has a set of unique challenges before its reliance on these fuels could witness a decline. 

One of those sectors is aviation—and there are no simple solutions to achieve net-zero emissions in this industry. 

With the supposed quantum leap in technology that could make zero-emission flights possible nearly a decade away, scientists were compelled to look for carbon-neutral ways to source fuels… and they might just have found one.

Making Fuel—Out of Thin Air

Researchers at ETH Zurich have developed a fuel plant that can derive carbon dioxide sourced directly from atmospheric air—through a process called thermochemical solar fuel production.

(Image: Worksite Ltd. on Unsplash)

Carbon and water sourced from ambient air in this process are split using solar energy-powered electrolysis which yields syngas—an intermediate product that can then be used to produce synthetic fuels through Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. In this fashion, raw materials are taken directly from the environment and converted to drop-in fuels, achieving true carbon-neutrality in the process. 

“This plant successfully demonstrates the technical feasibility of the entire thermochemical process for converting sunlight and ambient air into drop-in fuels”, explains Aldo Steinfeld, the Professor of Renewable Energy Sources at ETH Zurich. 

“The system operates stably under real-world solar conditions and provides a unique platform for further research and development.”

The research “Drop-in Fuels from Sunlight and Air” appears in the landmark British publication, Nature

According to experts, the process, if applied on an industrial scale, could bring the cost of fuel down to 1.20 to 2 euros per litre. 

Until viable zero-emission fuels make their foray into aviation, carbon-neutrality seems to be the way forward—not just for cost-effectiveness, but also for environmental sustainability.

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