JUN 20, 2019 09:04 AM PDT

New process for producing hydrocarbon fuels

Carbon-neutral fuels are the future, according to the researchers from ETH Zurich who have developed a thermochemical process using air and sun that is capable of generating syngas. What’s syngas, you ask?

Syngas is a mix of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can be turned into kerosene, methanol or other hydrocarbons, fuels that are used for transportation. It was developed by Professor Aldo Steinfeld of ETH Zurich and his research team and is the first technology to generate this type of hydrocarbon fuels in real-world conditions – aka the solar mini-refinery on the roof of ETH's Machine Laboratory building.

The solar mini-refinery on the roof of ETH Zurich produces around one deciliter of fuel a day. "This plant proves that carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels can be made from sunlight and air under real field conditions," Steinfeld commented. "The thermochemical process utilizes the entire solar spectrum and proceeds at high temperatures, enabling fast reactions and high efficiency."

What does that mean exactly? As Science Daily explains, the new technology utilizes three thermochemical conversion processes: 1) the extraction of CO2 and water from the air; 2) the solar-thermochemical splitting of CO2 and water; and, 3) their subsequent liquefaction into hydrocarbons. This all takes place inside a solar reactor at a very high temperature (1,500 degrees Celsius!) and results with the product of hydrocarbon fuels.

Photo: Pixabay

The researchers have high hopes for the new technology – mainly, to make it cheap enough that it can move into the industrial market for aviation transportation. Already, Steinfeld and his group are working on a large-scale test of their solar reactor in a solar tower near Madrid. "A solar plant spanning an area of one square kilometer could produce 20,000 liters of kerosene a day," said Philipp Furler, a former doctoral student in Steinfeld's group. "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."

Sources: Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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