A simple, yet world-altering method of sucking CO2 from the air into airplanes where it is converted directly to jet fuel is described in a new paper published in Nature.
With the importance of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at the front and center of so many economic and policy decisions, the invention of an onboard system for carbon-neutral flight would represent a massive step towards addressing the climate crisis.
Some estimates puts the aviation industry’s primarily-CO2 footprint of global emissions at just under 1 billion metric tons, or around 2.4% of all human activities.
Converting atmospheric CO2 into useable hydrocarbon fuel is difficult, and as until recently, expensive both in terms of capital and electricity. Using a molecule that is fully oxidized and thermodynamically stable, there are few keys that can cheaply or efficiently ‘unlock it’ for reuse.
Some catalysts, compounds that can attract and force a change in molecules, can convert CO2 into hydrocarbon molecules of a desirable configuration for jet fuels, but their use is limited because they are expensive or require huge amounts of electricity. They’re also inconsistent with producing hydrocarbon chains with the number of atoms ideal for aviation fuels.
The University of Oxford’s Peter Edwards, Tiancun Xiao, Benzhen Yao, and colleagues designed a new iron-based catalyst that represents an inexpensive way of directly capturing atmospheric CO2 and converting it into a jet fuel-range of hydrocarbons.
The basic catalyst is iron-based, and includes other simple chemicals like potassium nitrate, citric acid, and manganese, and when activated, would only need to climb to about 300°C (572°F) to work.
The authors were also able to collect other important raw materials for the petrochemical industry during the conversion process, which are currently only available from crude oil. Essentially, what Edwards and the other researchers discovered was a method for “mining” CO2, which far from being the blanket-term used in climate change studies, represents a wealth of volatile natural resources that can produce all manner for petrochemical products on the ground.
“The advances reported here offer a route out of the current, worldwide [lifecycle] for jet fuels, based on the (present) Production-Consumption- Disposal/Emission structure,” write the authors of the invention whose paper was published in Nature.
“This, then, is the vision for the route to achieving net-zero carbon emissions from aviation; a fulcrum of a future global zero-carbon aviation sector.”