May 5, 2014


Who remembers the old Mad Max movies? For me, I do not remember all that much about the first one, but The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome both stand out as fairly memorable movies in their own right. Apparently there is also a new Mad Max film set to release next year, but we will have to wait and see how that turns out. What stands out to me about these movies, beyond the over-the-top acting and crazy 80s action movie stunts and effects, is the dependence on a resource that is growing every more scarce: Fuel. There are many parts in both of these movies, particularly The Road Warrior, where the quest for fuel is shown in such a way that it becomes clear that it is more important to the characters than even human life. This was a relevant message back when the films came out and it has become all the more relevant today, as we continue to draw on more and more of our world’s non-renewable resources. Now, while I do not expect many out there have booby-trapped their car’s gas tanks, few can deny that we are in desperate need of a more renewable source of fuel.

Over the years, there have been many attempts to harness solar energy to support or even replace modern fuels, such as ETH Zürich, Bauhaus Luftfahrt, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), ARTTIC and Shell Global Solutions, with mixed results. Fortunately, there has been a recent breakthrough in this field, which could potentially revolutionize the future of aviation, as well as all forms of fuel-powered transportation. Called the SOLAR-JET project, this is the world’s first successful production of synthesized “solar” jet fuel. The process is innovative in that it uses focused sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into a synthesis gas (syngas) mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Converted by using commercial Fischer-Tropsh technology, the SOLAR-JET has demonstrated the ability to create a renewable source of kerosene.

According to Professor Aldo Steinfeld, who is leading the fundamental research and development of the solar reactor at ETH Zürich, “The solar reactor technology features enhanced radiative heat transfer and fast reaction kinetics, which are crucial for maximizing the solar-to-fuel energy conversion efficiency.”

The SOLAR-JET project’s process is still at an early stage in its development, although the processing the hydrogen/carbon monoxide syngas to kerosene is already being used by many different companies all across the globe, including Shell. “This is potentially a very interesting novel pathway to liquid hydrocarbon fuels used focused solar power,” said Professor Hans Geerlings of Shell Global Solutions. “Although the individual steps of the process have previously been demonstrated at various scales, no attempt had been made previously to integrate the end-to-end system. We look forward to working with the project partners to drive forward research and development in the next phase of the project on such an ambitious emerging technology.” The combination of technologies that make SOLAR-JET possible has the potential to provide renewable fuel for the use with all forms of transportation. During the next phase of the project, all involved partners will be attempting to optimize the solar reactor and discern the technological-economic potential of wide-scale implementation and distribution.

This revolutionary new process will forever change the world of aviation, according to Dr. Andreas Sizmann, the project coordinator at Bauhaus Luftfahrt, who stated “Increasing environmental and supply security issues are leading the aviation sector to seek alternative fuels which can be used interchangeably with today’s jet fuel, so-called drop-in solutions. With this first-ever proof-of-concept for ‘solar’ kerosene, the SOLAR-JET project has made a major step towards truly sustainable fuels with virtually unlimited feed-stocks in the future.” SOLAR-JET is already set to put Europe on the forefront of sustainable fuels, allowing them to lead the way to a more sustainable future.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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