Scientists Say They Can Create Fuel ‘Out Of Thin Air’

by : Poppy Bilderbeck on : 05 Nov 2021 08:56
Scientists Say Can Make Fuel Out of Air - ETH Zürich/Alessandro Della Bella/AlamyETH Zürich/Alessandro Della Bella/Alamy

Scientists have revealed that aircraft fuel can be made out of literal air.

The Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies at ETH Zurich has built a plant that can produce carbon-neutral liquid fuels from sunlight and air. The apparatus, a mini solar refinery, was placed on the roof of the laboratory two years ago.


The plant incorporates three different thermo-chemical conversion processes, ‘capturing CO2 and water from air, soda splitting and subsequent liquefaction’, to produce the fuel, known as ‘solar kerosene’.

Scientists Create Fuel From Air - ETH Zürich/ YouTubeETH Zürich/ YouTube

The plant extracts CO2 and water, through an adsorption, desorption process. They are then ‘fed into the solar reactor at the focus of a parabolic concentrator’, as per the Solarreaktor Animation EN video.

The solar radiation is concentrated by a factor of 3,000, according to the video, and ‘generates heat at a temperature of 1,500 degrees Celsius’ from inside the solar reactor.


The reactor’s centre is ceramic and made up of Cerium Oxide, and the chemical reaction that takes place inside it incorporates two different steps. In the first step, cerium oxide is reduced and oxygen is released, before CO2 and water are then added to make Syngas. This causes the ‘initial state’ to be ‘restored’ and then the cycle just continues.

Two solar reactors work in parallel, with the direction of sunlight alternated between the two, which is noted as improving efficiency by maximising the use of the sunlight.


Syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, can then be converted into multiple types of liquid fuel, all of which are carbon neutral.


Professor of Renewable Energy Sources at ETH Zurich, Aldo Steinfeld, led the research, Science News reports.

He stated:

This plant successfully demonstrates the technical feasibility of the entire thermochemical process for converting sunlight and ambient air into drop-in fuels. The system operates stably under real-world solar conditions and provides a unique platform for further research and development.

Scientists Create Fuel From Air - ETH Zürich/ YouTubeETH Zürich/ YouTube

Researchers from Zurich and Potsdam are planning to take the technology to an industrial and competitive scale.

Produced on an industrial scale, the fuel would cost around $1.20 to $2.00 per litre.

Johan Lilliestam, research group leader at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS Potsdam) and professor of energy policy at the University of Potsdam, noted the exciting potential the development has:

The technology enables us to meet global demand for jet fuel by using less than one percent of the world’s arid land and would not compete with the production of food or livestock feed.


Moreover, emissions could reach closer to zero if the production’s facilities were manufactured using renewable energy and carbon-neutral methods, and built out of materials such as glass and steel.

Scientists Create Fuel From Air - ETH Zürich/ YouTube ETH Zürich/ YouTube

However, the new technology will rely on political backing, due to the hefty investments that will be required to get the process going.

Lilliestam noted how the EU’s ‘existing support instruments […] are not sufficient to stimulate market demand for solar fuels’.

Instead, the group propose the ‘adoption of a European technology-specific quota system for aviation fuel’, which would force airlines to take a certain amount of fuel from the solar sources.

While the cost of flying may subsequently be impacted, the suggested ‘share of 0.1%’  would encourage the building of such facilities, and in time, lead to further technological advancements which could eventually reduce prices.

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Topics: Science, Airplane, Now, Technology


Science Daily and 1 other
  1. Science Daily

    Making aircraft fuel from sunlight and air

  2. ETH Zürich

    Solarreaktor Animation EN