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Could CO2 be turned into Jet Fuel?

Dr Ben Cockings
10 February 2021

Jet Engine
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Carbon Dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activity of which the majority of this is generated as a result of burning fossil fuels. The aviation industry is the second largest emitter of CO2 in the transport sector accounting for 13.9% which equates to 3.8% of the total CO2 emissions in the EU. 

So, what if we could convert emitted CO2 into Jet Fuel? This is actually not a new concept believe it or not. Researchers in the past have had success in turning CO2 into fuel, however most of the experiments require rare and expensive catalysts such as cobalt or huge amounts of electricity, making the processes financially unviable. 

Now a team at Oxford University have created a technique which uses an Iron – based catalyst meaning it is a much cheaper process. Iron is the most abundant element, by mass, in the world and is also easy to extract from its ore, in turn making it very inexpensive. This means that if the process is successfully unscaled it could result in “net zero” emissions from aircraft.  

When fossil fuels such as oil or natural gas are burnt, their hydrocarbons are turned into carbon dioxide, with water and energy being released. The experiment reverses this process to turn carbon dioxide back into fuel using the organic combustion method (OCM). Although the experiment was successful, only a few grams of fuel were produced with the challenge now being to effectively upscale the process. 

Tiancun Xiao, one of the papers authors, foresees the jet fuel plants being installed next to steel or cement factories or coal burning power plants, allowing for direct capture of CO2 to convert to fuel. The process could also ingest CO2 directly from the atmosphere, meaning excess CO2 could be extracted from areas with high pollution. With the need to move toward a more circular economy, processes such as this are imperative as carbon dioxide would become both a waste stream and a source of fuel.

This story is adapted from a Wired article, with editorial changes made by the METaL Project. Read more here.

Read the paper here.

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