How close are we now to achieving carbon-neutral aviation?
Researchers from Oxford University found a new way to turn CO2 into jet fuel. Is this the future for air travel?
Climate change is a serious problem all the world is currently facing. Different industries are coming up with ways to mitigate the effects of climate change and slow it down before it’s too late. The aviation industry, in particular, has been trying to achieve carbon-neutrality for many years already. But are we coming close to this goal already?
Last December 2020, a team of researchers from Oxford University, including Benzhen Yao, Tiancun Xiao, and led by Professor Peter Edwards, managed to produce jet fuel from CO2 and water, using an inexpensive iron-based catalyst. They say it is a cost-effective way of producing jet fuel, which may one day be used by planes to lower their operating costs and carbon footprint. This discovery is a major step towards carbon-neutral aviation. The aviation industry alone is responsible for releasing more than 900 million tons of CO2 every year.
Turning CO2 into jet fuel has already been done before, but it usually required complex processes and expensive chemicals. The new method the Oxford researchers have used may produce a competitively-priced jet fuel that can reduce or even eliminate the high emissions burden of the aviation industry. If CO2 instead of oil were used to make jet fuel for air travel, we could cut as much as 12 percent of all transportation-related carbon emissions.
Converting CO2 to Jet Fuel
This process will not involve extracting fossil fuel, making the aviation industry carbon-neutral. The Oxford researchers propose using the CO2 from the atmosphere and adding an iron-based catalyst and hydrogen to convert it to ethanol. Before, similar experiments used cobalt as a catalyst, which was expensive. Now, the researchers used a cheaper iron-based catalyst and placed it in a reaction chamber together with CO2 and hydrogen gas. Inside the chamber, the catalyst helps carbon from CO2 molecules detach from oxygen molecules and attach to hydrogen, forming hydrocarbon molecules for jet fuel. The oxygen atoms detached from CO2 then link up with hydrogen to form water.
The researchers produced the result in a small reaction chamber at 300 degrees Celsius and at ten times the normal atmospheric pressure. The process took 20 hours to finish. 38 percent of CO2 was turned into new chemicals, and about 48 percent of this amount was ethanol or jet fuel hydrocarbon. The by-products were ethylene and propylene, which can be used in plastic production.
While the test was only conducted in a small reaction chamber, professor Peter Edwards said that this new method could be scaled up in two to three years to yield higher quantities of jet fuel and make it economically practical. The professor is excited about this revolutionary advance, saying that it is the most important one in his long career. With government support, they can start a new synthetic aviation fuel manufacturing industry in the United Kingdom. They are currently in discussion with industries in the UK to set up a pilot plant. He is hopeful for the future of sustainable aviation fuel based on CO2.
It may take several years or more before this new method of producing jet fuel is a viable option for commercial airlines. For now, we will just have to wait for carbon-neutral air travel.
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