ETH Zurich researchers made something that could reshape aviation and marine transport — they developed a fuel which is produced using exclusively sunlight and air.

A sustainable fuel substitute

This fuel known as syngas is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. What makes syngas special is that it is created with a carbon-neutral process.

This means that the amount of carbon dioxide it releases into the environment is just the same amount of carbon dioxide extracted in order to make it. For us, this entails the mitigation of global carbon dioxide emissions.

How syngas is formed and used

Syngas is created in ETH Zurich’s solar refineries. It follows a three-step process:

  • Water and carbon dioxide is extracted from ambient air.
  • Concentrated solar energy is used to split the compounds into syngas.
  • Syngas is  processed into useful hydrocarbons such as  methanolCreación de combustible neutro en carbono hecho de la luz ...

Small beginnings, big potential

Right now, the ETH Zurich’s solar refinery is more of a proof-of-concept. One decilitre of fuel produced per day, it is far from supplying fuel for the cars in the city streets.

However, the ETH Zurich research group led by Prof. Aldo Steinfeld are on their way to conducting a large-scale of their solar reactor near Madrid in Spain.

“Theoretically, a plant the size of Switzerland – or a third of the Californian Mojave Desert – could cover the kerosene needs of the entire aviation industry. Our goal for the future is to efficiently produce sustainable fuels with our technology and thereby mitigate global CO2 emissions,” according to Philipp Furler, a former doctoral student of Steinfeld and the Director of Synhelion, a company which commercializes solar fuel production.

With this, we see that sustainability in our cities isn’t out of reach. We just need to continue exploring and innovating ways to make us humans living less of a pain for our own planet.

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