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Scientists Find Way To Convert CO2 Into Jet Fuel

Air travel accounts for about 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the transport industry—or at least it did before the pandemic. It is likely that once again travel will account for a solid portion of emissions once the industry recovers. Now, a team of scientists has found a way to reverse some of the damage by making jet fuel from carbon dioxide.

Air transport generated 915 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, according to data from the Air Transport Action Group, a Swiss-based industry organization. This represented some 2 percent of total human CO2 emissions that year, which may be a small number in terms of percentages but still a substantial amount of emitted CO2. And this CO2 could be out to good use.

The Oxford University team used a process called organic combustion to break down the carbon dioxide molecule into its constituents and convert these into new molecules, including liquid jet fuel, water, and some other compounds. In a paper published in the journal Nature, the team of researchers noted this process of direct conversion of CO2 into jet fuel was more economical than the indirect method as it involved fewer steps.

Economy is important in technologies seeking to make use of carbon dioxide—it means a technology is commercially viable. This is why carbon capture has been so slow in taking off and some doubt it ever will; carbon capture is a costly technology. But if CO2 can be converted into jet fuel, this could eventually cut global oil demand by a pretty sizeable chunk since aviation accounts for a solid portion of total demand from the transportation sector.

It is early days, however. According to the paper by the Oxford University scientists, led by chemistry professor Peter Edwards, the portion of CO2 converted into jet fuel through the process they employed was 38 percent, representing 48 percent of the total products of this process. Related: Rising LNG Prices Welcome News For U.S. Exporters

This may not sound like a lot, but it is certainly a good start, all the more so since the other products of the organic combustion included propylene and ethylene—hydrocarbons with multiple uses. But the best part, perhaps, is that once this reversely engineered jet fuel is used, it is carbon-neutral as it would release the amount of CO2 that was used to make it… which can then hypothetically be captured and used to make more jet fuel.

The capture part of carbon dioxide management, as mentioned above, tends to be a costly affair. Yet, according to the researchers, their organic combustion conversion systems can be installed at the source of CO2 emissions, at coal-fired power plants, for example. This makes this particular part of the solution to the world’s carbon dioxide problem pretty elegant and waste-free.

The global emissions of greenhouse gases this year fell by a record 2.4 billion tons or 7 percent on the year. This was the largest drop in emissions since records began, and a large portion of the drop came from aviation, as the pandemic grounded planes, furloughed crews and forced airlines to beg governments for financial help to survive.

Yet, the recovery of the air travel industry is only a question of time—and vaccines. Air travel and air transport have become an inseparable part of modern life, and it is doubtful even a pandemic of the current proportions could put an end to it for good. Large airlines are working on novel emission-free fuels for when that recovery comes, and they are also working on alternatives to the combustion engine for aircraft. But these are technologies of the future. Combustion engines in aircraft will likely remain dominant for decades yet to come. This certainly makes CO2-derived jet fuel a very attractive idea.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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