The petrol of the future

Mobility is responsible for a significant part of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. In his column, Michael Hengartner explains future solutions and opportunities in the field of transport.
ETH Professor Aldo Steinfeld's technology turns light and air into energy. © ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

The problem is well known: If we go on like this, we'll drive the climate to the wall. One record summer follows another, and the glaciers keep on melting. We urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But how?

One area that emits a lot of CO2 is transport. I personally see this as an opportunity: even small improvements can have a big impact here. Let alone major improvements. So, research and investment are particularly worthwhile in the area of mobility. A number of researchers  already have some solutions how we can get away from petrol!

The advantages of an electric car

The fastest solution is electric cars. These are only as clean as the electricity used to fuel them, and when they are manufactured, they are even more environmentally harmful than conventional cars. However, with the right mix of electricity, they can beat petrol cars by far over their lifetime. Swiss electricity today is already relatively environmentally friendly (we have over 60 percent hydroelectric power), and it will become even ecological in the coming decades. But the best thing about e-cars is that they are already on sale.

Batteries are good for short distances. But for long distances, whether on the road or in the air, we will still need fuel. Researchers are therefore working on the production of CO2-neutral fuels. These could one day replace fossil kerosene, petrol and diesel. A hydrogen filling station was inaugurated at Empa in Dübendorf ZH as early as 2015. Now Empa is going one step further by producing synthetic methane gas from renewable electricity, water and CO2 from the air. This gas is used firstly to store energy (in the middle of summer we have a lot of solar power but do not need so much electricity) and secondly as a fuel for trucks. Partners from industry, the energy sector and logistics are already on board: Lidl, for example, wants to supply its Swiss branches with CO2-neutral products in the future. Thanks to the eco-fuel from Dübendorf.

Energy from light and air

ETH Professor Aldo Steinfeld's technology sounds almost poetic. He turns light and air into energy. To do so, he uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight so strongly that the temperature at the focal point is 1500°C. At these temperatures, water and CO2 from the air react with each other, producing climate-neutral fuels. His former colleague Philipp Furler has now founded Synhelion, a spin-off by which he intends to make this fuel marketable.. He already has some prominent partners on board. In the last weeks, Zurich Airport has concluded an agreement with Synhelion. Swiss is also interested in the technology.

As you can see, clever minds are already working successfully on new fuels. And on a smaller scale it is already possible to produce climate-neutral "petrol". The next step will be to increase production and improve the technology to reduce costs. So that we can be on the road as soon as possible without harming the environment.

The article originally appeared in SonntagsBlick.