News In Context

The Dawn Of Solar Fuel


On June 20, as a way of marking the summer solstice, deep tech scale-up Synhelion, a spin-out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), inaugurated what is being billed as the world’s first industrial solar fuel plant.

The plant, which is based in Jülich, Germany and is called Dawn, demonstrates how the entire technology chain, from concentrated sunlight to synthetic liquid fuel, can work on an industrial scale. It features a 20-meter-high solar tower and a mirror field (see the photo). The solar tower contains a solar receiver, a thermochemical reactor, and a thermal energy storage that the company says enables cost-efficient solar fuel production around the clock.

“The inauguration of Dawn marks the beginning of the era of solar fuels – a turning point for sustainable transportation,” Dr. Philipp Furler, CEO and Co-Founder, said in a statement. Solar fuels can directly replace fossil fuels and are fully compatible with the global existing fuel infrastructure – from storage and transportation to internal combustion engines and aircraft engines.

E-fuels, which are also known as Power-to-X fuels and are made using renewable or decarbonized electricity, could be a viable pathway to Net Zero and scale up rapidly by 2030, underpinned by a massive expansion of cheaper renewable electricity and anticipated cost reductions of electrolyzers, according to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report on the role of e-fuels in decarbonizing the transport sector.

Swiss International Airlines in an investor in Synhelion. The ETH spin-out has a network of international partners, which include Lufthansa Group,  Zurich Airport, and Pilatus Aircraft.

Synhelion will begin building its first commercial plant in Spain in 2025. The plant will produce a total of around 1000 tons of fuel per year. Planned future plants will significantly exceed the size of the first two plants and thus offer a much higher production capacity. Synhelion aims to achieve an annual production volume of around one million tons of solar fuel within ten years.

The inauguration comes just a week after two other European deep tech companies, Germany’s Ineratec and France’s Soler Group announced that they are planning to build a production plant in southern France that can produce biocarbon and e-fuel from renewable raw materials. Their aim is to optimize the conversion of forestry residues (and other biomass materials) into high-quality biocarbon and syngas and then use that to make high-value e-fuels.

Interatec is also partnering with Synhelion. At the core of Synhelion’s technology is a proprietary process that converts solar heat into syngas. At plant Dawn, this syngas is then liquefied via the Fischer-Tropsch process by a unit Synhelion bought from Ineratec. This way, Synhelion says it can produce clean solar fuels that offer an economically viable, efficient, and scalable substitute for fossil fuels that is fully compatible with existing global fuel infrastructure.

The Dawn plant expects to produce several thousand liters of fuel per year. On-site, the plant will produce synthetic crude oil, known as syncrude. This intermediate product, which is particularly suitable to be transported, is then processed into certified fuels in a conventional oil refinery. This allows Synhelion to produce not only solar kerosene for aviation, but also solar gasoline and solar diesel for road transportation and shipping applications.

The ability to produce fuels from solar heat was first demonstrated in 2019 in a mini refinery on the roof of ETH Zurich. Since then, Synhelion’s growing team has worked to scale up Sun-to-Liquid technology and to apply it on an industrial scale.

The construction of DAWN was funded by Synhelion’s investors and the Energy Research Program of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Protection.

In transport, low-emission e-fuels provide a complementary solution to sustainable biofuels. Particularly in aviation, e-fuels benefit from their ability to use existing transport, storage, distribution infrastructure and end-use equipment.

E-fuels, also known as synthetic fuels, are liquid fuels produced from renewable energy. These fuels have similar chemical properties to fossil fuels and can be used in conventional combustion engines without the need for modifications. However, the production of e-fuels requires a lot of energy, which must be generated from renewable sources to have a positive environmental impact.

Low-emission e-fuels are currently expensive to produce, but their cost gap with fossil fuels could be significantly reduced by 2030, according to the IEA report.



Biden Bans U.S. Sales Of Kaspersky Software Over Russia Ties

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OpenAI Founder Announces Rival Startup

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OpenAI is working with startup Color Health to expand the use of artificial intelligence in healthcare by applying its AI models to cancer screening and treatment.Color Health, which was founded as a genetic testing company in 2013, has developed an AI assistant or “copilot” using OpenAI’s GPT-4o model. The copilot helps doctors create cancer screening plans, as well as pretreatment plans for people who have been diagnosed with cancer.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.