Solar power for your holiday flight

Kerosene made from sunlight could make flying more environmentally friendly in future. Teams of scientists are developing the world’s first industrial-scale production plant for this.

Mädchen sitz mit Spielzeugflugzeug auf gepacktem Koffer© Adobe Stock/Romolo Tavani

“Going forward, solar fuels will be the most environmentally friendly solution for long-haul traffic. Another benefit is the fact that no new infrastructure needs to be built for this. The existing distribution networks, refineries and engines can continue to be used for the solar fuels,” says Patrick Hilger, mechanical engineer and managing director of Synhelion Germany. Synhelion is working in the SolarFuels research association with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Jülich Solar Institute of the University of Applied Sciences in Aachen. The scientists have an ambitious goal: they are developing the world’s first industrial scale facility for fuel produced by solar energy. Project director Hilger hopes that their operations in Jülich, North Rhine-Westphalia, can come on stream in 2023.

Sunlight supplies the energy for the manufacturing process

The researchers are using a regenerative energy source to produce the solar fuel: the Sun. When it is shining, its radiation is captured by hundreds of adjustable mirrors which reflect it on to the upper end of a solar tower. This tower hosts a receiver, and the concentrated solar radiation heats water vapour up to roughly 1,200C. The heat is important for the thermochemical process to produce the synthetic fuel. The process developed by Synhelion produces synthesis gas which can then be turned into synthetic diesel and kerosene.

Global air traffic causes two to three per cent of global carbon emissions

There is a great need for climate-friendly kerosene all around the world, because airplanes are responsible for roughly two to three per cent of global carbon emissions. This means that environmentally friendly fuels can play a big part in achieving the ambitious climate targets. The solar fuel facility in Jülich is a first step in this direction, and others are to follow. Synhelion plans to use its process to produce, or let others produce, up to half of Europe’s kerosene needs by 2040.

Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action providing approx. €3.9 million in funding for SolarFuels

The building of the facility in Jülich is an important milestone in the development of comprehensive expertise in solar-chemical installations. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action is therefore providing a total of €3.9 million for the SolarFuels research project until 2025.