Sustainable aviation is financially feasible with synthetic fuels

CO2-neutral synthetic fuels could one day replace fossil jet fuels. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology recently had a breakthrough producing such a fuel using solar thermal energy.

Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. But that doesn’t have to be the case. According to Anthony Patt of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, “technologies are emerging that could make it possible to fly with renewable energy”.

ETH researchers recently presented a breakthrough for highly efficient production of such a CO2-neutral synthetic fuel using solar thermal aviation. The solar mini-refinery was located on the roof of the ETH’s Machine Laboratory building in Zurich.

Patt, a professor of climate policy, also makes the business case for replacing fossil jet fuel with synthetic fuel by drawing on Switzerland’s experience with solar and wind power, electric cars and low-energy buildings. Instead of simply taxing fossil fuels, policy-makers focused first on stimulating investment in renewable energy production and use until the new technology became competitive and reliable, and only later turned their attention towards phasing out the use of fossil fuels.

According to Patt, a similar approach could be use in aviation: airline fuel suppliers could be required to mix in some fraction of synthetic fuel, starting below 1 per cent of total fuel volume but rising each year. Revenues from an aviation tax could cover the additional cost.

As the fraction of synthetic fuel increases, the production costs would fall, argues Patt. “In 30 years’ time, an airplane flight burning 100 per cent synthetic fuel would cost about 25 per cent more than one burning fossil fuel today,” writes Patt. “We will have decarbonised the sector, with passenger prices rising so gradually as to be barely noticeable.”

Image credit: Tom Blackwell via Flickr

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