The COVID-19 has radically changed how people live, work, and travel on a global scale. Aviation is one of many industries that have experienced an unprecedented decline due to this black swan event. Industry analysts have estimated that the global air passenger traffic registered a record-breaking decline of 60% YoY for 2020. While a recovery is expected, the pre-pandemic level will not return until 2024.
The International Air Transport Association, which is the main trade association of the global aviation industry, currently forecasts that the annual total number of air travelers will come to 7.8 billion by 2036. Air traffic will continue to grow following the pandemic and exert pressure on the environment, particularly in the form of air pollution. Carbon Sciences, a US-based developer of alternative fuels, has recently announced that it has achieved a major breakthrough in the R&D of a renewable fuel for aviation. The new fuel production process developed by the company has the potential to significantly reduce CO2 emission and raise profitability for airlines as a whole.
The aviation industry is known for producing an enormous amount of particulates and greenhouse gases annually. With energy transition and CO2 reduction becoming global trends, adopting fuels that are not petroleum-based has become a high priority for the industry. The media outlet TWT World, which is covering this story, has reported that the amount of CO2 produced in flying a person from Istanbul to New York is a confounding 1.3 metric tons. TWT has also noted that to effectively halt global warming, the amount of CO2 that a person can produce annually has to be limited to 0.6-1.5 metric tons.
New Production Process for Aviation Fuel Will Be Demonstrated in Next Several Months
Carbon Sciences claims that it has devised a method that manufactures transportation fuels (such as jet fuel) from the CO2 originally released through the burning of traditional fossil fuels. If the company proves that its process can be scaled up and has a cost advantage, then the renewable fuel that the process produces could lead to a true paradigm shift in energy and transportation.
Speaking to media outlets, Derek McLeish, CEO of Carbon Sciences, said that his team is thrilled about the breakthrough. He added that a pilot-scale production line for the renewable jet fuel will be built and ready for demonstration in the next several months. The pilot-scale production line should be able to quickly convert a stream of CO2 into a flammable liquid fuel.
TWT World has pointed out that the demand for air travel will keep increasing at a rapid pace due to globalization and the rise of the middle class in the emerging economies. Although transportation companies are happy to see the continuing demand growth, they and the wider public are facing serious environmental challenges that have arisen from the burgeoning traffic of various types of vehicles.
Climate Brief, a UK-based website covering news on climate change, has issued a report stating that aviation will account for 12% of the global CO2 emissions produced by humans in 2025. This projection is based on the assumption that global warming will be kept under 1.5 degrees Celsius by then. If the limit of 1.5 degrees is ignored, then the industry will account for more than 25% of the global CO2 emissions in 2025. Earlier, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a study stating that an increase of less than 1.5 degrees in the global average temperature has already led to a doubling to tripling of the normal temperatures in the Arctic regions. The current level of warming has also increased the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events around the world.
Carbon Sciences Touts That Its Approach Is More Cost-Effective Compared with Competing Methods for Producing Jet Fuel
According to the information provided by various sources, Carbon Sciences has pioneered a bio-catalytic process that converts CO2 into fuel. In the early phase of development, the company used a catalytic agent that contained iron, potassium, manganese, hydrogen, and citric acid. The CO2 and catalytic agent had to be heated to 350 degrees Celsius in order to break apart CO2 molecules. Loose oxygen and carbon atoms were then combined with hydrogen atoms to form a hydrocarbon compound (i.e., a flammable liquid fuel). The R&D personnel at Carbon Sciences recognized that this method was not cost-effective because too much energy was needed to split CO2 molecules, which have a very stable structure. However, the company now claims a key breakthrough has been made, and the process is now much less energy-intensive.
Hydrocarbon compounds are the main ingredients in different types of fossil fuel. Heat and CO2 are released during the burning of a fossil fuel, and the level of heat has a positive correlation to the amount of carbon in the fuel. The gasoline that cars consume has 7-10 carbon atoms in its molecular chain, whereas jet fuel that produces more heat has 10-16 carbon atoms in its molecular chain.
The initial tests on the method were successful. The process took place in a pressurized chamber, and around 38% of the CO2 that was input into the chamber was converted into jet fuel within the period of 20 hours. Jet fuel accounted for 48% of the output, the remaining 52% included water, ethylene, and propylene. These byproducts are all useful. Carbon Sciences also stresses that the process is carbon neutral, as the initial tests indicated that the amount of CO2 used for the conversion fully offset the amount of CO2 released during the fuel production.
And most significantly, the process developed by Carbon Sciences is touted to be less costly compared with other methods for jet fuel production, especially those that require a lot of electricity to transform water and hydrogen into fuel. Instead of using a filter to collect CO2 from the air, Carbon Sciences says it will source CO2 directly from oil refineries, coal-fired power stations, and other facilities that are known for emitting a lot of greenhouse gases.
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