How to Create Carbon Neutral Aircraft Fuel Using Sunlight and Air

Yes, you read that right. Two of the most abundant resources on planet earth, natural sunlight and the air we breathe, can be converted into aircraft fuel. Not only is the resource easy to harvest, but it creates carbon-neutral fuel that will help eliminate emissions from aircraft. But will this technology ever take off (airplane pun intended)?

How to create aircraft fuel using sunlight and air

The researchers conducting these studies are from ETH Zurich University in Germany, and the above video is in German, so you have some captions to read. But the concept behind solar and air-creating fuel isn’t terribly complicated.

First, the satellite dish structure (which is actually a collection of solar panels) collects the sun and heats up a cerium oxide coil. From there, the carbon and H2O (water) extracted from the air passes through the coil. The oxygen is removed from the water to oxidize the coil as it heats up to the tune of 1,500 degrees Celcius. That left hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which creates the fuel syngas.

It sounds simple, and in truth, the machinery required to make the fuel doesn’t take up much space. As you can see, a simple rooftop will suffice. But there are still some issues with this solar fuel.

The drawbacks of syngas solar fuel

Sunlight shining down on an airplane
Sunlight shining down on an airplane | Robert Alexander/Getty Images

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One minor issue with syngas is that it’s carbon-neutral, and while that sounds like a good thing, it’s not perfect. As of right now, our planet needs to reverse the damages of carbon change, not just outweigh them. Yes, the carbon planes burn was created by the sun and the air, but it’s still carbon, and doesn’t clean up the environment. It just keeps things as dirty as they already are.

That’s where electric planes come in, which can mitigate emissions because they don’t produce any. That is, until you look at the power plants that provide electricity for charging stations. But they’re still significantly cleaner than any vehicle using carbon-neutral fuel.

However, that doesn’t mean solar-air syngas shouldn’t be invested in and scaled, because carbon neutral is better than the jet fuel we burn now. But there’s one significant barrier blocking any commercial success of syngas: price. Currently, a liter of kerosene (normal jet fuel) is about .46 cents.

But with syngas, it’ll cost anywhere from $1.39 to $2.32 according to Euro News. That’s like if gas prices jumped by 19% from $3.42 (the current national average) to $4.05. Though, in truth, you can’t even compare this syngas aircraft fuel to cars because cars can’t use it.

Can this solar fuel be used in cars?

Cars in traffic
Cars in traffic | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Kerosene and syngas require a massive amount of heat to actually ignite. When met with a spark, gasoline can ignite in temperatures around -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, you can’t ignite kerosene unless the fuel is 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If you put Kerosene or syngas into a regular car, you’d simply flood the gasoline engine, as it wouldn’t be able to vaporize the fuel.

The reason I bring this up is that airplanes make up 8% of all global transport emissions. Meanwhile, cars make up three-quarters of all global transport emissions, and a combined 15% of all global emissions. In other words, while cleaning up planes is great, there are other areas that need more attention.

Electric cars are becoming mainstream. And while the transition will be rough, the switch to zero-emissions transportation and power supplies is necessary to actively combat climate change.

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