Swiss will soon fly its planes on “solar kerosene”

From 2023, the Swiss airline will start using synthetic fuel that respects the environment and is produced using solar energy.

According to Reuters, the airline Swiss, which depends on the Lufthansa group, has agreed on a partnership with the Swiss firm Synhelion, a company which depends on the prestigious Swiss Institute of Technology. The objective: to use “solar kerosene” to fly its planes from 2023. The beginning of a small revolution in commercial aviation?

This amazing product title comes directly from the manufacturing process of these fuels. To begin with, it is a “synfuel”. It is a contraction of the English terms “synthetic” and “fuel” which designates synthetic fuels with properties comparable, if not identical to those of fossil fuels.

To produce them, the industry relies on a mixture of hydrogen and carbon dioxide called “syngas”. This gas contains all the elements necessary for the assembly of the long chains of hydrocarbons which are the basis of many industrial fuels.

It is a process that works very well, and which is already widely used in many sectors of industry. But the problem is that the manufacturing process is extremely energy-intensive. The challenge is therefore to produce synthetic gas in a clean and responsible way; it is therefore necessary to find a suitable substrate and a source of renewable energy.

What is “solar” fuel?

There are several types of synfuels, such as biofuels which are certainly the best known synfuels. In their case, the syngas in question is produced from biomass. It is then converted into biofuel in a process that requires another external energy source, since all this material has to be heated. This is not the approach chosen by Synhelion, which preferred to bet on so-called “solar” fuels.

Strictly speaking, all biofuels are produced from solar energy; the difference lies in the number of intermediaries, each of which represents a loss of energy. For example, in the case of biofuel, the sun is first used to grow plants which are then exploited.

The difference is that with solar fuel, that energy is used directly; instead of going through an intermediary like plants, the sun is put to contribution as it is thanks to a set of mirrors. It thus makes it possible to supply a thermochemical reactor filled with water and carbon dioxide which produces “solar fuel”.

Undeniable advantages

In practice, this fuel has several very interesting advantages. For starters, they are completely carbon neutral. In addition, the manufacturing process works entirely on the basis of renewable and abundantly available materials. Indeed, water and carbon dioxide are directly extracted from the atmosphere.

But above all, this technique makes it possible to produce fuels that are functionally comparable to those already used by aircraft. In the case of Swiss, this means that the firm can simply replace its fossil kerosene with this solar equivalent overnight, without any particular intervention. This is a considerable advantage, knowing that a change of fuel generally involves replacing all of the engines concerned.

Moreover, this approach does not suffer from the limitations that still handicap alternative solutions, in particular biofuels. And that starts with the procurement of materials. Indeed, the industrial production of biofuel involves growing biomass in large quantities; they therefore enter into competition with food crops, in a context where arable land is becoming increasingly scarce.

Swiss and Synhelion, plan to inaugurate this fuel in planes from 2023. Then, the airline hopes to be able to fly half of its fleet with solar kerosene by 2030. It is obviously necessary to take all these beautiful promises with tweezers, but the idea is in any case very exciting; it will therefore be very interesting to follow this industrial adventure which could, you never know, mark the beginning of a real ecological shift in this sector with an absolutely catastrophic environmental impact.

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