Green fuels for aviation

Researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and the partner institute Empa have started a joint initiative called SynFuels. The goal is to develop a process for producing kerosene from renewable resources. 

Over the next three years, the two Swiss research institutes will jointly search for practical ways of linking carbon dioxide and hydrogen to form longer-chain molecules and thus produce synthetic fuels.

An ambitious but worthwhile target is to make these fuels suitable even for an aircraft engine, explains Thomas J. Schmidt, head of the Energy and Environment Division at PSI: “Aviation fuels are the fuels with the highest quality. If we can manage to produce them from renewable resources, then we will also be able to synthesise all other kinds of fuel.”

Fuels from renewable sources

Carbon dioxide and hydrogen are the starting materials for the manufacturing process to be developed. The carbon dioxide comes from various sources, such as from biomass, directly from ambient air, or from industrial manufacturing processes such as cement production. The hydrogen required, in turn, is generated from water with the help of renewable electric power.

The liquid fuel is not synthesized in a single step, but via one or more intermediates such as methane, carbon monoxide, methanol, ethylene, or dimethyl ether. During the course of the SynFuels initiative, the researchers want to determine the advantages these different production methods offer as well as the challenges they pose.

A special focus is being placed on achieving better selectivity in the synthesis of both intermediates and products. Analyses to determine the synthesised fuel’s ecological footprint, its potential contribution to greenhouse gas reduction in Switzerland, and the economic viability of the manufacturing process are also important parts of the project.

Catalysts are key

Catalysts – substances that activate a chemical reaction, or make it possible in the first place, without being consumed in the process – are the key to the success of the project. At Empa as well as at PSI, researchers are investigating various catalysts and processes that enable the stepwise conversion of carbon dioxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons on the molecular level. The catalysts are being used in chemical as well as electrochemical processes.

The Board of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH) is funding the SynFuels programme with 6.2 million Swiss francs over the next three years.

Image credit: Nathan Hobbs via Unsplash

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