Sustainable aviation: Scientists invent new method to convert CO2 into jet fuel

Scientists from the University of Oxford have invented a new, inexpensive method to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into jet fuel.

They invented a new iron-based catalyst that captures the gas and converts it into a jet fuel range of hydrocarbons. As this carbon dioxide is extracted from air, and re-emitted from jet fuels when combusted in flight, the overall effect creates a carbon-neutral fuel.

The process of capturing CO2 has previously been developed by scientists, however this method – labelled the ‘Organic Combustion Method’ – is a much cheaper way of capturing the gas. It’s a groundbreaking discovery towards the UK government’s 2050 goals for net zero carbon emissions.

Dr Tiancun Xiao and Professor Peter Edwards explain what their research could mean for the future of air travel.

As jet fuel is traditionally made by burning fossil fuels, air travel has become a large climate change contributor. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 710 million tons of CO2 was released into the atmosphere from global commercial aviation in 2013.

As well as this new method of creating jet fuel, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) has been used by commercial aviation companies since 2008. SAF refers to fuel that has not been derived from fossil fuels, such as algae and sugarcane. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that the fuel is labelled sustainable because the process creates: ‘lifecycle carbon emissions reduction, [has] limited fresh-water requirements, no competition with needed food production and no deforestation.’ Between 2011 and 2015 – 22 airlines performed over 2,500 commercial passenger flights with blends of up to 50% SAF.

Velocys, a leading company that designs sustainable fuels, developed the process which provided a basis for the new Organic Combustion Method. They are currently developing a commercial plant in Immingham, in the U.K, to make sustainable jet fuel with British Airways. The plant, that was approved by North East Lincolnshire Council in May, will process household and commercial waste that would otherwise go to landfill.

Their Head of Communications and Sustainability, Lak Siriwardene said: “The Altalto waste-to-jet-fuel proposed plant in Immingham is the first and most advance in the whole of the UK and it seems Europe too. The main co-investor in the plant is British Airways who is looking at ways to fuel their fleet in a sustainable manner. We have the here and now technology to help achieve net zero targets and to significantly lower carbon emissions and especially with carbon capture usage and storage.”

The UK has become one of the leading countries for sustainability aviation research. However, the COO of Green Fuels Research – Paul Hilditch – explains the drawbacks of the new method: “These processes will only really be truly sustainable when there is a surplus of renewable energy to make them, and they’ll only be commercially viable when that energy is really, really cheap. Right now, only around 40% of UK energy supply is renewable, so the potential carbon saving is limited.”

The UK have made substantial developments into the world of sustainable jet fuel, but the research still has a fair way to go in order to reach the 2050 net-zero goals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *