Lufthansa backs Swiss effort to develop carbon-neutral aviation fuel

Industry muscle combined with innovative technologies could help solve the vexing problem of jet fuel emissions.

By Darrell Delamaide

(About the author: Darrell Delamaide is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. He has specialized in business and finance over a long career, writing for Barron’s, Dow Jones, Institutional Investor, Bloomberg, and MarketWatch, among others. He has written extensively about energy, economic and monetary policy, banking, capital markets, politics and regulatory affairs. A longtime correspondent in Europe, Delamaide also has written about international economics, global markets, foreign policy, and other international topics.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — Lufthansa, one of the world’s biggest airline groups, is embarking on a collaboration with a Swiss technology institute and two startups to accelerate development of sustainable aviation fuel by extracting carbon dioxide from the air and using concentrated sunlight to convert it into a synthesis gas that can be made into jet fuel.

The fuel would release only as much carbon dioxide as goes into it, so it would be carbon neutral. Lufthansa units Swiss Air Lines and Edelweiss Air will work with the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and two affiliated startups, Climeworks and Synhelion, to develop the process and bring it to industrial scale.

The combination of Lufthansa's industry muscle and the innovative technologies developed at the Zurich institute can help solve the vexing problem of jet fuel emissions. It’s an issue batteries or photovoltaic panels can’t fix.

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“In contrast to other modes of transport, air transport will depend on sustainable liquid fuels in the foreseeable future,” Aldo Steinfeld, professor for renewable energy carriers at the Zurich institute, said in a statement May 15 on the announcement of the joint letter of intent with the German group.

Airlines are reeling from the Covid-19 lockdown and relying on government bailouts to tide them over the disruption in travel. Lufthansa is seeking €9 billion ($9.74 billion) but is resisting the German government’s insistence on getting a 25% stake in exchange. As of Friday, the two sides were still negotiating.

But this new collaboration signals the industry’s determination to achieve the ambitious goals set by the International Civil Aviation Organization to realize a 2% improvement in efficiency each year and to maintain the industry’s net carbon emissions from 2020.

Much of the progress so far has been in the production of biofuels, which generally are blended with conventional fuel, much the same as ethanol is routinely mixed into gasoline. But the feedstock in many of these biofuels is palm oil or byproducts, which contributes to deforestation.

ASTM International, a global standards group, last week approved the use of a synthesized paraffinic kerosene from hydrocarbon-hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids for blending up to 10% with jet fuel. IHI Corp., a diversified Japanese transport conglomerate, led development of this biofuel on the basis of microalgae.

The main current method to mitigate aviation fuel impact, however, is carbon offsets, such as forests — though that presents its own problems in an age of raging fires, droughts, and geopolitical tensions.

Climeworks was founded in 2009 by two former students at the Zurich institute, Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, who developed a direct air capture technology to extract carbon dioxide from the air. So far, they have applied the technology to supply the fizz to soft drinks and to offer individuals subscriptions for turning carbon dioxide into stone by burying it in basaltic bedrock.

The company’s Iceland project to bury carbon dioxide is a bona fide negative emissions enterprise, because the carbon is extracted and buried forever. The Lufthansa collaboration will result in a carbon-neutral product, but provides another avenue to commercialize the technology and reduce overall emissions.

Synhelion was founded in 2016 as another spinoff from the Zurich technology institute to develop a solar fuels technology on the basis of thermochemical research by Philipp Furler, who is chief technology officer of the Lugano-based firm. 

Synhelion builds solar towers to concentrate sunlight from a farm of mirrors to produce 1,500° C. of heat that converts carbon dioxide and water into syngas then used for liquid fuels. This innovative technology bypasses the relatively inefficient power-to-liquid method of producing electricity from solar panels to power the conversion.

The goal is to provide “drop-in” fuels that can be used in current jet engines without expensive adjustments or retrofitting. Synhelion is already working with Italian energy firm Eni to first apply thermal energy to methane for a jet fuel that reduces carbon emissions by 50% and then the 100% carbon neutral fuel from carbon dioxide extracted from the air.

There are skeptics who doubt direct air capture can ever be cheap enough to be commercially viable. Comparative costs are a moving target as the price of carbon dioxide extraction declines dramatically but a ton of synthetic fuel currently costs a multiple — five times or even more — of fossil jet fuel and production volume is minimal.

The backing from Lufthansa, which has pioneered experimentation with alternative fuels for a decade, brings a positive result closer. Rotterdam Airport is working on a similar pilot project and has lined up low-cost carrier Transavia, a unit of Air France-KLM, as its first customer. 

Delta (DAL) announced in February, before the coronavirus outbreak, that it planned to be carbon neutral going forward, but it is relying on standard methods of efficiency improvement and offsets.

It may be German engineering prowess — the two Climeworks founders are both German and the Lufthansa letter of intent emphasizes industrial scale — that makes this technology work. If their partnership with Lufthansa succeeds, the sky’s the limit.

Above, the Climeworks direct-air carbon capture plant in Iceland. Photo: Arni Saeberg/Climeworks/The Helena Group Foundation.