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Universities team up with plan to develop low-carbon aviation fuel from recycled CO2 and bio-waste

A £2 million funding package has been announced to develop low carbon aviation fuels from captured CO2 and waste biomass.

The multi-disciplinary project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will be led by engineers and scientists at Heriot-Watt University in conjunction with teams from Aston and Oxford Universities and the University of Edinburgh.

The benefit of the project is double-sided, according to its team, in that the research offers the aviation industry the potential to deliver a 24% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, and also suggests a solution based on recycling waste biomass along with carbon captured from other CO2 producing industries.

Energy security is of particular concern for the aviation sector which is currently dependent on fossil fuel but at the same time is faced with demands from the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) to reduce its carbon emissions by 50% by 2050. In contrast to ground transportation, there are no alternative fuel sources with sufficient energy density to fly a plane and in contrast to other transportation sectors emissions from the aviation sectors are currently increasing by 6% per year. 

The project will use new combinations of existing cutting-edge science and technologies to create a fuel which could offer a 24% cut in carbon emissions by 2050, and to do it using undesirable waste products.

The strength of the project team is its natural, multi-disciplinary nature, bringing together specialists from the fields of engineering, chemistry, materials science and economics in a unified approach which involves parallel gasification and co-electrolysis with other process engineering technologies to offer a step change in bio jet fuel production. 

The use of waste materials to produce a much needed fuel alternative almost sounds like magic. Instead, insists project leader Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer, Director of the Energy Academy at Heriot-Watt University, it’s more a matter of breaking down traditional academic barriers to bring together novel mixes of scientific and engineering expertise. 

Professor Maroto-Valer stated, “Our project aims to produce low carbon synthetic aviation jet fuel using renewable energy from agricultural waste and forestry biomass and captured CO2. " She continued, “Clearly, we won’t suddenly be producing enough fuel to fly fleets of jets, but believe we can demonstrate a prototype process, based on existing technologies, which will produce a new, greener fuel and which can then be scaled up  for commercial production.”

Professor Philip Nelson EPSRC’s Chief Executive said: “If we are to meet the targets set in the new international agreement brokered in Paris we have to devise new ways of thinking, both in how we make and use energy and how we address technological challenges. This new EPSRC-funded research can be part of our response to the challenge of climate change.”

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