Could carbon dioxide be turned into jet fuel?

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Aviation industry has sought ways to reduce its global carbon footprint over the past decade, such as purchasing so-called carbon offsets—Such as tree planting projects or wind farms — to offset the carbon dioxide released from high-flying jets. At the same time, the airports of San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as a dozen in Europe, fuel planes with greener alternative fuels to help meet carbon emission reduction targets.

Today, a team from the University of Oxford in the UK has developed an experimental process that could turn carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas emitted by all gas engines – into jet fuel. If successful, the process, which uses an iron-based chemical reaction, could result in “net zero” emissions from aircraft.

The experience, reported today in the newspaper Nature communications, was conducted in the laboratory and has yet to be reproduced on a larger scale. But the chemical engineers who designed and executed the process are optimistic that it could be a game-changer for the climate.

“Climate change is accelerating and we have huge emissions of carbon dioxide,” says Tiancun Xiao, Principal Investigator in the Oxford Department of Chemistry and author of the article. “The infrastructure for hydrocarbon fuels is already there. This process could help mitigate climate change and use the current carbon infrastructure for sustainable development. “

When fossil fuels like petroleum or natural gas are burned, their hydrocarbons are converted into carbon dioxide and water and energy are released. This experiment reverses the process of turning carbon dioxide into fuel using something called the organic combustion method (OCM). By adding heat (350 degrees Celsius, or 662 degrees Fahrenheit) to citric acid, hydrogen, and a catalyst made of iron, manganese and potassium to carbon dioxide, the team was able to produce fuel. liquid that would work in a motor jet. The experiment was carried out in a stainless steel reactor and produced only a few grams of the substance.

In the lab, carbon dioxide came from a cartridge. But the idea of ​​adapting the concept to the real world would be to capture large amounts of greenhouse gases either from a factory or directly from the air in order to remove them from the environment. Carbon dioxide is the most common of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet and is produced by factories, cars and wood burning, including forest fires and slash-and-burn agriculture. Keeping it out of the atmosphere could help reduce global warming, although carbon emissions around the world have been increasing for a few decades and are on track to warm the planet by 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Xiao and his colleagues say the new method would also be cheaper than existing methods that turn hydrogen and water into fuel, a process called hydrogenation, mainly because it uses less electricity. Xiao plans to set up a jet fuel plant next to a steel or cement plant or a coal-fired power plant, and capture its excess carbon dioxide to make the fuel. The process could also involve sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, something called direct-air capture. The catalyst that does the trick is abundant on earth and requires fewer steps than other high-value chemical synthesis methods, say the authors.

An expert who was not involved in the experiment said the concept looks promising, provided the authors can figure out how to switch from producing tiny amounts of jet fuel in the lab to making larger amounts in a pilot plant. . “It looks different and it looks like it might work,” says Joshua Heyne, associate professor of mechanical and chemical engineering at the University of Dayton. “Scaling is always a problem, and there are new surprises when you scale up. But in terms of a longer term solution, the idea of ​​a circular carbon economy is certainly something that could be the future.

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