Synhelion - The Solar Fuel

Newest research at the Swiss Federal Institue of Technology (ETH) in Zurich seem to present a real commercial innovation in alternative fuel production. An interview with Dr. Gianluca Ambrosetti, CEO of Synhelion, a spin-off company of the ETH.

Could you briefly explain your technology?

Synhelion has developed an economically viable technology to produce solar fuels. We use solar energy to turn CO2, water and in some instances methane, into syngas. Syngas is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which is further processed into liquid fuels. Our fuels are compatible with the current global infrastructure and have a 50% to 100% lower net carbon footprint than fossil fuels.

The innovative steps lie in the syngas production. Our unique high-temperature solar technologies drive thermochemical processes to generate syngas. We are currently developing two routes: The first one, called the “reforming-route”, offers a 50% CO2 emission reduction potential and is close to market entry. The second route generating 100% carbon-neutral fuels operates under more challenging conditions and will require a few more years of development.

The syngas produced in the first phase is converted into conventional fuels such as kerosene. How does this process work and how does this fuel differ from the "original"?

The production of climate-friendly syngas is actually the innovative part of our technology. Turning syngas into fuels is an established process that is already applied by many industries, for example by large oil and gas companies in gas-to-liquids (GTL) plants. The resulting fuels match the specifications of conventional fuels and can be used without any change.

After conversion, are there any special regulations for the use or storage of the fuel and do technical modifications have to be made to machines or infrastructure?

Synthetic fuels produced with the proven syngas-to-fuel route can in principle be handled, stored and utilised without modification to the infrastructure at any level. Additionally, synthetic fuels contain less impurities (e.g. lower sulfur content), which means that they burn with less noxious emissions.

There is therefore a wide range of possible areas of interest. Are you focused on a specific industry?

Any type of liquid fuel can be produced through this process: kerosene, diesel, gasoline, methanol, and many others. We focus on liquid fuels because they have an extremely high energy density – they contain 20 to 60 times more energy per volume than batteries. For some applications, such as aviation and shipping, this is a necessity. Batteries for such a capacity are too heavy for long-distance flights or shipping, even in the future. We believe, that our solar fuels are the most realistic approach to effectively reduce carbon emissions in the aviation and shipping sector at an affordable price.

Airlines are faced with the challenge to find more environmentally friendly solutions while keeping costs under control. They calculate a price of one to two francs per litre for alternative fuel. Currently, one liter of regular kerosene costs 50 Cents - can solar fuel compete?

This is why we are developing two technologies. The pure CO2 and water-splitting technology is more expensive and will still take some time to develop. That’s why we are also following the alternative reforming route to shorten the time to market. Our solar fuels based on splitting CO2, water and methane offer 50% lower net carbon emissions. The estimated production cost for these fuels is USD 0.5 to 1 per liter, which is competitive with the fossil fuel price. We plan to market these reforming-based fuels within the next three years, which will in turn fund the development of our net zero solar fuel. This development strategy is in line with the transportation sector’s goals to considerably reduce carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.

Your product is CO2 reduced or neutral - Hypothesis: couldn’t the airlines then, for example, save high environmental taxes and thus compensate for the price range?

Exactly, if the airlines use fuel that produces 50% lower net CO2 emissions than conventional fuels, they should have to pay only half the taxes.

Smooth logistics and secure production sites are becoming increasingly important. Where can your production sites be located and what critical mass do you need to reach on order to be considered an interesting player in the fuel market?

Ideal conditions can typically be found in deserts or high insolation areas on any continent. In Europe, the best candidates are southern Spain and Sicily. Luckily, the great energy density of liquid fuels makes them suited for transportation, so that delocalized production would not impact significantly. To give you an idea regarding the scale of our technology: the supply of the annual European jet fuel consumption (75 million tons) would require a surface of around 2’000 km2 (a square of 45×45 km) with the reforming route.

Finally, tell us what your time horizon looks like?

We are currently scaling up our technology and plan to launch our reforming-based fuels within the next three years. At the same time, we are developing our 100% carbon-neutral technology, which we would like to introduce to the market within the next seven years.

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