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Could Carbon Dioxide Fuel Jets? New Study Says Yes

airplane taking off over mountains and ocean

Instead of buying carbon credits, airlines could become carbon neutral simply by using a fuel created from the greenhouse gas.

According to Wired, scientists at Oxford University have reverse engineered jet fuel from carbon dioxide. The breakthrough has yet to be replicated outside of the lab and would need to be dramatically scaled up in order to be viable for fueling air travel.

A team at Oxford University in the United Kingdom has developed an experimental process using an iron-based chemical reaction that transforms  C02 — a greenhouse gas in the exhaust of all gas-burning engines — into jet fuel.

The study, published in Nature Communications, was conducted in a laboratory setting and must still be replicated at a larger scale in the real world. But the chemical engineers who designed the process are hopeful, and if it is successful it could be a climate game-changer for the travel industry.

Travelers are more and more concerned about their carbon footprint and overall environmental impact, and there is a movement to avoid air travel entirely. In the future being environmentally conscious and jetting of to Ibiza might not be antithetical.

“Climate change is accelerating, and we have huge carbon dioxide emissions,” Tiancun Xiao of Oxford’s Department of Chemistry and an author on the paper told Wired. “The infrastructure of hydrocarbon fuels is already there. This process could help relieve climate change and use the current carbon infrastructure for sustainable development.”

When fossil fuels are burned in a combustion engine, water and energy are released and the waste product, carbon dioxide, comes out as exhaust. The scientists reversed that process using a technique called the organic combustion method which adds carbon dioxide with citric acid, hydrogen, and a catalyst made of iron, manganese, and potassium and heats it to 662 degrees Fahrenheit to produce a liquid fuel that can power a jet.

In the lab, the experiment was done in a stainless-steel reactor, with carbon dioxide gas from a canister, and it only produced a few grams of fuel. But in real-world settings the idea would be to capture large amounts of the greenhouse gas from a factory or directly from the air. According to Wired, "Xiao foresees installing a jet fuel plant next to a steel or cement factory or a coal-burning power plant, and capturing its excess carbon dioxide to make the fuel. The process could also involve sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, something called direct-air capture."  

Carbon dioxide is the most common global-warming greenhouse gas, and keeping it out of the atmosphere would help reduce the effects of global climate change. Fueling jet travel from factory emissions or air pollution could dramatically alter the travel industry's efforts to become a sustainable or even restorative business.


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Jacob Anderson-Minshall