Lufthansa Group to collaborate with Swiss ventures developing renewable jet fuel from sunlight
Wed 27 May 2020 – Lufthansa Group has signed a letter of intent with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) and its two spin-offs Climeworks and Synhelion to develop renewable jet fuel from sunlight. The collaborative partnership, initiated by Lufthansa Group subsidiaries SWISS and Edelweiss, will include cooperation in technology and economic efficiency, with an intention to agree at a later date on quotas of the renewable fuel to support demonstration projects. Researchers and engineers at ETH Zurich have developed processes that make it possible to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and together with water and the help of concentrated sunlight, convert it into a synthesis gas that can be used to produce jet fuel. The fuel releases only as much CO2 as was previously extracted from the atmosphere.
Founded at ETH Zurich in 2016 and 2009 respectively, Synhelion is working on bringing solar fuels to the market, while Climeworks is pursuing CO2 air separation to provide the carbon required for fuel synthesis in a sustainable manner.
“In contrast to other modes of transport, air transport will depend on sustainable liquid fuels in the foreseeable future. Their market launch requires a joint effort by fuel manufacturers and airlines,” said Dr Aldo Steinfeld, Professor for Renewable Energy Carriers at ETH Zurich. “This letter of intent is intended to support the energy turnaround in aviation.”
Synhelion is working to commercialise two routes to solar jet fuel with the help of Italy’s Eni, the 10th largest oil company in the world. In the first, it plans by 2022 to market aviation fuel based on solar reforming of methane, which the start-up claims will have 50% lower carbon emissions than conventional fuel. The intention is that this will fund development of a more advanced product by 2030, a 100% carbon-free solar jet fuel from air capture of CO2 and H2O, which Synhelion says its research teams have demonstrated successfully. A solar mini-refinery was installed on the roof of ETH Zurich and produced one decilitre of fuel per day. Steinfeld and his group are already working on a large-scale test of their solar reactor in a solar tower near Madrid.
“The pure water and CO2 splitting process we proved is our long-term vision, but it still requires quite some development and its product is more expensive than the current fossil fuel price, so it is currently too far away from the market. In this more advanced pure thermochemical route we are putting in 1500°C of heat to drive the chemical process. We aim to introduce this technology by 2030,” explained Synhelion CTO Philipp Furler, whose solar fuels research at ETH Zurich formed the basis of the technology.
“But we also plan to introduce a product before that time. In order to enter the market much faster we want to launch a simpler solar reforming-based route first. The solar reforming approach is more efficient than the pure water and carbon dioxide splitting process and is based on existing industrial technology. This is why we are developing both processes in parallel.”
Jet fuel made through a solar reforming-based approach would be commercially viable in the short term and cost little more than today’s jet fuel because reforming is a mature, standard technology, claims Synhelion.
Furler said a solar plant spanning an area of one square kilometre could produce 20,000 litres of kerosene a day. “Theoretically, a plant the size of Switzerland – or a third of the Californian Mojave Desert – could cover the kerosene needs of the entire aviation industry,” he claimed.
By 2030, Synhelion plans to have around 100 small plants in operation producing approximately 5 megatons of solar fuel a year using the solar-reforming process and believes that when the roll-out begins commercially, the estimated fuel cost will be between 50 cents and $1 per litre. If the 100 facilities were all in one place, the company says the total land requirement would be about 80 square kilometres. To produce the entire global demand of 300 megatons on one site using solar reforming would require 5,000 square kilometres.
The more advanced thermochemical process manufacturing 100% carbon-neutral fuel from CO2 and H2O captured directly from air requires higher temperatures and so more space is needed for solar harvesting.
“If we were to cover the whole global jet fuel demand with CO2-neutral fuels from pure H2O/CO2 splitting, we would need around 50,000 square kilometres,” calculates Furler. “We assume that many smaller plants would be distributed all over the world, in all the sunny areas.”
A study published earlier this year by Christoph Falter and his team at the German research lab Bauhaus Luftfahrt looked at which countries could produce their own solar jet fuel, or even the entire global demand, from sunlight and CO2 and H2O in air. It took into account the solar resource, the coastal access for fuel shipping and if there was enough suitable space not required for other uses like cities, agriculture, industries and forestry.
The study found that many of the countries analysed could easily produce just their own domestic demand, guaranteeing their own supply security as well as meeting national greenhouse gas reduction commitments. Some ten countries could produce the entire global demand.
Of these, some countries could produce even more than 100% of global needs – for example, Australia could produce up to 18 times the current global demand. Desert nations like Algeria and Saudi Arabia could produce it four to five times over, and from just its southwest region, the United States could produce almost two and a half times current world demand.
This is not the first power-to-liquid venture Lufthansa has joined recently. In February 2019, it signed a letter of intent with Raffinerie Heide (Heide Refinery) for the development and use of synthetic kerosene produced from renewable energy, water and CO2. The fuel is to be produced by using surplus wind energy generated locally. With Hamburg Airport also a partner, the fuel is planned to be used on flights from Hamburg.
Raffinerie Heide, under the direction of the University of Bremen and together with five other partners from industry and science, has been involved in the KEROSyN100 research project funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy since summer 2018.
“The Lufthansa Group has been working hard for years to make flying ever more sustainable,” said Christina Foerster, Executive Board Member of Deutsche Lufthansa and responsible for Customer & Corporate Responsibility. “Thanks to the forward-looking technologies and the cooperation with innovative partners in two of our home markets, we are on the right track.”