Flying on liquid sunlight

The aviation industry emits nearly 1 billion tons of CO2 per year. The Swiss have a plan to reduce that to zero.

Finding sustainable alternatives to traditional fossil fuels is the great challenge of our era. These days, no number gets repeated more often than 1.5. That is, 1.5 Celsius. The threshold of global warming that the planet can tolerate before it experiences severe climate disruption. Given that air travel is a major contributor to global emissions, it’s therefore crucial that we find cleaner alternatives to power the aviation industry.

With the clock ticking, two Swiss companies believe they may have found the answer, and they’re wasting no time getting things off the ground – literally. Solar technology developer Synhelion is collaborating with Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) and Lufthansa, to bring solar aviation fuel to the market, and it could be powering your next flight sooner than you think.

Using the energy of the sun, Synhelion has developed a manufacturing technology that would make carbon-neutral flying possible as early as 2023. The technology uses concentrated sunlight to drive a thermochemical process which produces syngas (a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen). This can then be used to make carbon-neutral kerosene.

If all goes to plan, SWISS will become the world’s first airline to power planes by what is essentially, ‘liquid sunlight’. Its take-off would mark the adoption of an energy source that has the capacity to drive major progress in the decarbonization of the transportation sector.

Synhelion plans to open the world’s first industrial solar fuel production plant in 2023, and they believe they can produce 875 million litres of solar fuel per year by 2030. That would be enough to take care of more than half of Switzerland’s total jet fuel energy needs. What’s more, this technology would not be limited to just air travel. Solar fuel could potentially be used to power ships, cars, and trucks too.

Sustainability matters to the Swiss. And the country’s long-standing commitment to environmental preservation is clearly reflected in this pioneering work in the field of renewable energy. Here’s hoping that this Swiss-led collaboration will pave the way for solar fuels to replace fossil fuels in the transportation industry, so we can enjoy a greener and more hopeful future in aviation and beyond.