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Two E-Fuel pioneers to keep an eye on
Both companies will be featured in our upcoming carbon removal power list, as a subscriber, you’ll receive the link to this once it’s out.
Most aviation net zero projections rely heavily on drop-in fuels – low carbon SAF that can be used on existing aircraft – being available over the next three decades.
Right now, much of this comes from feedstocks, crops or agricultural waste. That’s problematic, as it potentially takes away land for food use, and there are often competing uses for forestry or bio-waste.
As a result, eventually, there will need to be a move from biofuels to so-called E-Fuels, fuels made by renewable energy from CO2.
Synhelion - Turning sunlight into fuel
One E-Fuel pioneer has a solution that claims to turn “sunlight into fuel.” That company is Swiss-based Synhelion.
It extracts CO2 from the atmosphere and, together with water and with the help of concentrated sunlight, converts it into a synthesis gas that can be used to produce jet fuel.
In August, Synhelion became the first company in the world to succeed in producing syngas on an industrial scale using only solar heat as an energy source.
It did so by successfully demonstrating the sunlight-to-fuel process on the multi-focus solar tower of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Jülich, North Rhine-Westphalia.
Jülich will also be the site of DAWN. With construction having started in September, this will produce synthetic liquid fuel on an industrial scale.
SWISS will be the first airline to fly using the CO2-neutral solar kerosene produced there.
The company’s goal is to reach a production capacity of 875 million liters of fuel per year in future commercial plants by 2030.
Twelve - Making products from air
Meanwhile, California-based Twelve takes CO2 from the atmosphere and turns it into products.
It’s worth watching their very accessible eight-minute introduction video to find out a bit more about their vision.
Twelve has even made sunglasses out of CO2, as well as the first CO2-made car part for Mercedes Benz, and the world’s first detergent made from CO2 for Tide.
The relevance to aviation is that one of the CO2-based products they are working on is ‘E-Jet’ fuel.
E-Jet is made with Twelve’s carbon transformation technology, a new electrochemical reactor and proprietary catalyst that electrifies CO2 and water, which creates synthesis gas, CO + H2, which is then refined into carbon-neutral jet fuel.
E-Jet is a drop-in fuel, so it can be used now, but has over 90% lower lifecycle emissions.
In 2020, the US Air Force launched a pilot program to test the viability of E-Jet.
That hit a major milestone in August of last year, when Twelve successfully produced jet fuel from CO2, proving the process worked and setting up the conditions to create the synthetic carbon-neutral fuel in larger quantities.
This in turn has led to interest from Alaska Airlines, which wants to use E-Jet to reduce the climate impact of corporate travel of one of its biggest customers – Microsoft.
As part of the collaboration, Alaska and Twelve will first of all be working towards a demonstration flight using an aircraft from the Alaska fleet powered by E-Jet.
Yes, e-fuels are for now expensive.
But there’s no reason why it should be that way. It’s worth looking at the trajectory of solar power to see how green technology can change with the right amount of incentives and regulation.
Several decades ago it was almost prohibitively expensive. Now, according to the IEA it’s “the cheapest electricity in history.”
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