A new breakthrough can help reduce the carbon footprint of air travel with the goal of reducing jet emissions to net zero. A team of researchers at the University of Oxford has successfully converted carbon dioxide (CO2) into jet fuel, despite the small scale of the experiment so far. With increasing attention to climate change, scientists have been seeking to convert carbon dioxide into sustainable synthetic hydrocarbon fuels for transportation for several years. So far, this kind of reverse engineering has only been tested in the laboratory, but if it is introduced on a large scale, it may change the rules of the game-make air travel carbon neutral.

The team of researchers discovered a method using low-cost iron catalysts that can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide (or exhaust gas directly from factories) into synthetic jet fuel. Scientists first prepared Fe-Mn-K (iron manganese potassium) by organic combustion method (OCM). Then, the catalyst is converted by hydrogenation into 38.2% hydrocarbons in aviation jet fuel and CO2 with low carbon monoxide production of 5.6%. The conversion reaction also other by-products, which are important raw materials for the petrochemical industry and are currently only obtained from fossil crude oil.

In this method, carbon dioxide extracted from the air is used for conversion and then re-emitted from jet fuel when burned in flight. As a result, the overall effect of the process is carbon neutral fuel.

Image source: nature.com

So far, this process has remained inside the walls of the laboratory. There are some challenges that need to be overcome before it can be made into a viable method of aviation fuel production. One of the obstacles involves carbon capture-the process of capturing carbon from the atmosphere. The activation of carbon dioxide is also a challenge. Another complication is that the hydrogenation of CO2 to synthesize hydrocarbons is generally conducive to the formation of short chains, rather than the ideal long chains required for the synthesis of aviation fuels.

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This new process represents a major social advancement, highlighting that carbon dioxide recovery and resource conservation are important and critical aspects of greenhouse gas management and sustainable development. It is expected that this catalytic process will become a way to achieve net zero carbon emissions in the aviation industry in the near future-until we as a society are fully equipped to use environmentally friendly electric aircraft.

One of the authors of the paper, Akira Tamura from the Department of Chemistry at Oxford University, said in an interview with Wired: “Climate change is accelerating, and we have a lot of carbon dioxide emissions. Hydrocarbon fuel infrastructure already exists. This process can be done. Help mitigate climate change and use the current carbon infrastructure to promote sustainable development.”

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