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The magic fuel for sustainable aviation,What is solar paraffin?

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The production of carbon-neutral jet fuel from sunlight and air may soon become a reality thanks to a new production plant designed by researchers at ETH Zurich. What is it and how does it work? What does this new development entail?

Air transport is one of the most enthusiastic energy sectors, especially of fossil origin. Therefore, in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, it will be important to find carbon-neutral alternatives for the industry to make the movement of goods and people sustainable.

This is undoubtedly one of the biggest energy challenges we will face in the next decade. However, the solution may be closer than we think. In fact, the idea has been brewing for more than two years at the Laboratory of Mechanics (ETHZ) at ETH Zurich, where a research team led by energy professor Aldo Steinfeld is working.

According to Steinfeld, "This plant successfully demonstrates the technical feasibility of the entire thermochemical process for converting sunlight and ambient air into direct fuels". And that is what the ETHZ scientists have developed: a plant capable of producing carbon-neutral liquid fuels from sunlight and air!

This plant successfully demonstrates the technical feasibility of the entire thermochemical process for converting sunlight and ambient air into direct fuels.

How does it work?

"CO2 and water are extracted directly from the ambient air and separated into their parts by solar energy to produce synthesis gas in the process, which is then converted into paraffin, methanol or other hydrocarbons," explains Steinfeld. "The system operates stably under real-world solar conditions and provides a unique platform for further research and development. The technology is now mature enough for use in industrial applications, so our next goal will be to bring this technology to industrial scale and be competitive in the market," he says.

The desert, the ideal place

Another major advantage of producing this fuel is that desert areas with abundant solar energy are particularly suitable as production sites for this type of energy. "Unlike biofuels, whose potential is limited due to the scarcity of agricultural land, this technology would allow us to meet the global demand for jet fuel using less than 1% of the world's dry land, and it would not compete with food production for livestock or humans," explains Johan Lilliestam, research group leader at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies.

A new jet fuel takes off

The scientists also outline the policy framework that would provide the incentives to expand production of what they call "solar paraffin". Among the main drawbacks the researchers believe they would encounter are the high initial investments to get the first large-scale plants up and running. "Solar fuels will need political support to ensure market entry," they say.

The challenge of sustainable aviation

In the Future of Aircraft Design blog, we discussed the effect of having a fleet of electric aircraft. However, the development of these more sustainable fuels and systems is a big step for the future of aviation. This is because the adoption of such fuels would accelerate progress towards a market with greater demand for sustainable flights.

"Existing EU support instruments - emissions trading and offsetting - are not sufficient to stimulate market demand for solar fuels," explains Lilliestam. "In this respect we propose the adoption of a European system of specific technology quotas for aviation fuel," he continues. "This would require airlines to purchase a specific share of their fuel from solar sources," he adds.

Now we just have to wait and see how this new technology is supported by various governments and adopted in the aviation industry. Thanks to solar paraffin, cheap and clean flights may be a viable option in the not too distant future.

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