You’ve surely heard of powering your house through solar energy. But what about powering jets?

Scientists have invented a process whereby solar-powered jet travel is now possible. The process involves extracting carbon dioxide and water from the air and using solar energy to convert them into fuel for airplanes.

A team of scientists, led by Aldo Steinfeld, a professor at Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, has successfully demonstrated this process at a facility in Spain. The resulting carbon-neutral fuel is called “solar kerosene.”

The procedure involves a field of sun-tracking mirrors, called “heliostats,” that focus sunlight on a solar tower. The tower (pictured above) houses a solar reactor where carbon dioxide and water are brought from the air. The concentrated heat is then used to split and rearrange elements into a “syngas,” which is further processed into kerosene.

This procedure builds upon an earlier experiment conducted by Steinfeld’s team using a “parabolic concentrator” dish on a building in Zurich. The technology has been scaled up to show its potential for powering airplanes.

According to Steinfeld, improving aviation fuel can significantly reduce carbon emissions and make air travel more sustainable. Solar kerosene is compatible with existing infrastructures for fuel storage, distribution, and use in jet engines.

The diagram below illustrates how solar kerosene is produced.

Source: Aldo Steinfeld

Decarbonized aviation is here at last

The International Energy Agency (IEA) states that air travel is roughly 12 times less efficient per passenger compared to rail travel. Recent studies have indicated that air travel can release up to 100 times more carbon pollution per hour than alternative modes of transportation like trains, buses, or carpooling.

Moreover, scientists have struggled to decarbonize the aviation sector thus far.

Various measures, such as decreasing air travel, enhancing the use of aviation biofuels, or developing batteries for electric airplanes, have been proposed as solutions. However, the current reality is that planes still rely on burning conventional fuel.

This is why Steinfeld’s solar tower is such an important accomplishment. Steinfeld believes that scientists now have the technology to build solar fuel plants that can produce 9 million gallons of solar kerosene annually.

Progress is already being made. A German company called Synhelion is planning to commission the world’s first industrial-scale solar fuel plant in Germany by the end of 2024. Synhelion is also planning to build a larger commercial-scale facility in Spain by 2026, as reported by The Cool Down.

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