On the roof of their laboratory at ETH Zurich, scientists have built a solar mini-refinery to demonstrate a new technology that could spell the end of fossil fuels as we know them – using sunlight and air to create liquid fuel.
With fossil fuels running out, pulling fuel out of thin air sounds like a pipe dream – but that’s exactly what the creators of this reactor say they’re doing.
Scientists in Zurich say they’ve figured out a way to split water molecules in the air using heat from the sun, to create a clean and renewable liquid energy source
Carbon dioxide and water from the atmosphere are fed into what’s called a solar reactor inside this dish.
Sunlight is then taken and reflected on mirrors, amplifying it, in a way similar to how some solar power plants work.
That creates a thermo-chemical process, splitting the water and CO2 molecules to produce a fuel called syngas, which can be turned into other fuels.
ALDO STEINFELD, PROFESSOR OF RENEWABLE ENERGY CARRIERS AT ETH ZURICH, SAID:
“This is an example of an end product: methanol. We can also process gas into other liquid hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline or kerosene. These fuels are carbon neutral. Their combustion release is exactly as much CO2 as we originally extracted from the air for their production.
The claim that the process is carbon neutral is another big win, as gasoline combustion is a big carbon dioxide producer – such as from car engines.
On a bigger scale, the team says the fuel produced this way could make an important contribution to sustainable transportation – especially long-haul aviation and shipping.
PHILIPP FURLER, DIRECTOR OF SPIN-OFF SYNHELION, SAID:
“Our goal is that by 2025 to have the first full scale commercial solar fuels plant in operation with a production capacity of around 10 million liters of methanol per year.”
They’re already in the process of expanding at this site in Madrid, with backing from the EU.
Space issues may be a concern with the tech, though.
The site’s director says a site like that to create enough fuel to power the entire aviation industry, for example, would take a setup the size of Switzerland.