EU research project claims revolutionary breakthrough that uses solar power to produce renewable jet fuel
Solar reactor and research team at ETH Zürich
Wed 7 May 2013 – A collaboration of European research organisations, academia and industry has claimed the first-ever production of synthesised ‘solar’ jet fuel, which they say is a major step towards truly sustainable fuels using virtually unlimited feedstocks. The SOLAR-JET project, launched in 2011 with funding from the EU 7th Framework Programme, has managed to demonstrate a process technology using concentrated sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water to a synthesis gas (syngas) – a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide – that can then be finally converted into jet kerosene by using commercial Fischer-Tropsch (FT) technology. Those involved in the project include Bauhaus Luftfahrt, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), ARTTIC and Shell, which claim the development of the pathway will put Europe in the forefront of research, innovation and production of sustainable fuels directly from concentrated solar energy.
The conversion process from CO2 and water to a syngas involves a solar-driven redox cycle with metal oxide based materials at high temperatures. “The solar reactor technology features enhanced radiative heat transfer and fast reaction kinetics, which are crucial for maximising the solar-to-fuel energy conversion efficiency,” explained Professor Aldo Steinfeld, who is leading the fundamental R&D of the solar reactor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zürich), another of the partners in the project.
“The basic idea is to reverse the combustion process,” added Patrick Le Clerq, who is responsible for the project at the DLR Institute of Combustion Technology in Stuttgart. “What we do is take CO2 and water vapour, and introduce energy to produce fuel.”
The thermochemical process uses the solar reactor developed at ETH Zürich to split a metal oxide, which serves as a catalyst, into metal and oxygen ions. Using solar receivers that capture and focus sunlight, the required temperature of up to 2000 degrees Celsius can be achieved. Afterwards, CO2 and water vapour are fed through the solar reactor and the reaction with the metal and oxygen ions produces high-purity syngas.
Although the solar-driven redox cycle for syngas production is still at an early stage of development, the partners point out the processing of syngas to jet kerosene is already being deployed by companies such as Shell on a worldwide scale, with FT-derived fuels already approved for commercial aviation use. This means the fuel produced by this technique will not need to undergo new and extensive certification procedures, they say.
“This is potentially a very interesting novel pathway to liquid hydrocarbon fuels using focused solar power,” said Professor Hans Geerlings at Shell. “Although the individual steps of the process have previously been demonstrated at various scales, no attempt had been made previously to integrate the end-to-end system. We look forward to working with the project partners to drive forward research and development in the next phase on such an ambitious emerging technology.”
In this next phase of the project, which has a four-year duration, the partners will optimise the solar reactor and assess the technical and economic potential of industrial scale implementation.
“Increasing environmental and supply security issues are leading the aviation sector to seek alternative fuels which can be used interchangeably with today’s jet fuel, so-called drop-in solutions,” said Dr Andreas Sizmann, the project’s coordinator at Bauhaus Luftfahrt, the interdisciplinary research institution funded by four aerospace companies – Airbus, IABG, Liebherr-Aerospace and MTU Aero Engines – along with grants from the Bavarian government.
“With this first-ever proof-of-concept for ‘solar’ kerosene, the project has made a major step towards truly sustainable fuels with virtually unlimited feedstocks in the future.”
The reactor will be displayed on the DLR stand at the forthcoming ILA Berlin Air Show being held May 20-25.