Over the next decade, space agencies and private space companies such as SpaceX plan to build a base on the Moon and Mars. While scientists are already building missiles for travel, for long-term human settlements on any of them, astronauts will need fuel to carry out daily activities. Many have already proposed hydrogen as a possible solution. But a group of scientists is working to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere into synthetic fuel for aircraft. Because Mars is rich in CO2 (around 96%) and the lunar regulars have a high concentration of carbon dioxide, it offers a possible solution.
For now, however, the team of scientists at Oxford University is focusing on the manufacture of aircraft fuel for the aviation industry. As the aviation industry contributes more than 900 million tonnes of CO2 each year to fight climate change, it is necessary to turn the tide and make sure it is leaning towards carbon neutral. The other aspect is that fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource, which means that, at some point, the world will run out of gas. Therefore, it is important to focus on the different forms of fuel.
So far, aviation scientists have tried to use various other energy sources, such as electricity, to fly. But such flights are limited to short distances. For long-haul flights, there is still no alternative. “It is seen as part of a series of approaches to climate change mitigation. It will not be the end, it will not be the final story, there will be many other things and it could be a connecting technology,” said the chemistry professor. Shane Telfer of Massey University told the NZ News Hub.
CO2 to jet fuel
The concept of converting CO2 into aircraft fuel is not new. As fossil fuel burns, it decomposes and emits CO2 into the atmosphere. Therefore, many scientists have tried to find a way to convert atmospheric CO2 into ethanol (jet fuel). What Oxford researchers are proposing is the addition of a cheap catalyst based on iron and hydrogen that would turn it into ethanol, recycling atmospheric CO2 into ethanol. As the process would not involve the extraction of fossil fuels, it will make the industry carbon neutral. The result of the study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Previously, other similar methods had to rely on expensive catalysts, such as cobalt, to start the chemical reaction. Now, Oxford researchers have proposed the use of a cheap iron-based catalyst. Because the catalyst is placed in a reaction chamber alongside CO2 and hydrogen gas, the process separates the carbon molecules and attaches to hydrogen to form a hydrocarbon or jet fuel molecule. The rest turns into water.
The researchers tested the new catalyst in a small reaction chamber at 300 ° Celsius and 10 times the sea air pressure. The whole process took 20 hours and turned 38% of CO2 into new chemicals. About 48 percent of them were ethanol or hydrocarbons for the reaction fuel, and the rest were other by-products, such as ethylene and propylene, that are used in plastic production, Science News reported.
Professor Peter Edwards, one of the project’s leading scientists, said the new method could be extended to two to three years to produce large quantities of aircraft fuel to make it economically viable.
“This is a truly exciting, potentially revolutionary breakthrough, the most important breakthrough in my four-decade career. Our vision is that the world can see that captured CO2 can be used as an energy carrier to enable sustainable aviation. With government support, this would provide an incentive for the growth of a new British aviation fuel industry, “he said, adding that his team is in talks with British industries to set up a pilot plant.
Other similar projects
The Oxford University project is not the only one trying to turn CO2 into fuel. Eight other companies are also working on similar projects. A Swiss company is building a CO2 capture plant from the atmosphere, while a New Zealand start-up called Lanzatech has adopted a different method of converting industrial waste gas into ethanol. Virgin Airline’s biofuel flight was partially powered by Lanzatech fuel.
If the Oxford University project can be expanded, it could attract the attention of Elon Musk. A similar method can be used to produce enough water and fuel to ignite a colony on Mars and the Moon.