Scientists claim to have discovered a new way to manufacture fuel “out of thin air”

Scientists claim to have developed a novel device that can generate fuel from sunlight and air.

The new technology is noteworthy because it can operate in the field rather than in the specialized and specific settings of a laboratory.

It might eventually be used to make carbon-neutral fuels for activities like aviation and shipping, but major development and scaling would be necessary first, according to the engineers behind the discovery.

The technology is part of a larger effort to develop new methods that could help cut the 8% of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions caused by flying and shipping. One alternative is to develop new drop-in fuels that function similarly to kerosene or diesel but are made synthetically from water and carbon dioxide and powered by solar energy.

Scientists have made some progress in developing the different components of such a system. However, creating the entire thing in a form that is usable in real-world settings has proven to be considerably more difficult.

Engineer Aldo Steinfeld and his colleagues developed a working version of the system on the roof of ETH Zürich, the university where the study was done. It was made up of three parts: an air capture unit that takes carbon dioxide and water from the air, a solar unit that captures solar energy and uses it to convert those materials into a mixture of carbon monoxide and oxygen, and another unit that converts that gas into liquid so that it can be used as a fuel.

If the system were to be built up to a large enough size, it might potentially meet the need for the far less environmentally friendly kerosene that currently fuels the aviation and shipping markets.

However, enormous manufacturing plants — around 0.5% of the Sahara Desert – would be required, and the fuel would initially be more expensive than kerosene.

As a result, they stress that there would need to be regulatory assistance as well as means to support the early investment in the fuel.

The findings are presented in a new scientific paper, ‘Drop-in Fuels from Sunlight and Air,’ which was published today in Nature.


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