It seems like almost everyone has an agenda to argue against today as the field of science fills up with controversial issues. But one of the more difficult to ignore is that of the impact of jet fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions on the environment.
Attacks on those in these industries by environmentalists claim that the use of aircraft for non-urgent means is an unnecessary waste of non-renewable resources. These industries, on the other hand, transport people and products daily as part of their business, and the airline travel industry is finally booming again after a long lag of COVID-19 enforced travel bans. But new research could effect a compromise for both of these groups: an iron catalyst in a chemical process could turn carbon dioxide into jet fuel, reducing the carbon footprint of the aviation industry, saving money, and pleasing the environmentalists concerned about future generations.
Statistics on Jet Fuel Usage and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
When the airline industry first began opening up to the average citizen, it was a pretty expensive way to travel. Because of the expense, only a small percentage of people could afford to do so. In the 1960’s, there were only about 100 million passengers who traveled by plane to their destination, but by 2017, this number had increased to more than four billion.
The increased number of people traveling by plane is due in part to the greater affordability, but also because of the substantial boost in confidence that has been earned over the decades. There is the occasional tragic crash that happens each year, resulting in a minor decrease in this confidence, but overall, airline travel is found to be statistically safer than driving in a car.
As the aviation industry grows and expands to spread in developed countries and developing nations, passenger air travel produces both the highest and fastest growth of individual emissions of all modes of fuel use, including the collective numbers of automobile use, electricity, industrial, and agricultural. This is in spite of the fact that the past decades have brought about improvements in how efficient the aircraft and flight operations run. Creating denser seat configurations, improving air traffic operations, advancing technology in the way aircraft is designed, and boosting passenger loads reduce the overall intensity of the energy used, but carbon dioxide emissions have still grown as commercial air traffic rises. As of 2013, the global carbon dioxide numbers from commercial aviation numbered at 710 million tons. By 2017, that number had risen to 860 million tons and climbing. Almost one-quarter of that number was attributed to the United States alone. The effects of these gas emissions are detrimental to the environment and impacting the climate-warming problem. But new research has everyone in the aviation and environmental industries hopeful.
The New Fuel and How it Works
When an airplane burns its fuel, it expels a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, warming the climate. That carbon dioxide could be used by an iron-based catalyst to become jet fuel, though.
Planes are still resistant to renewable energy, since they don’t have the capacity to carry a battery large enough to power the massive aircraft through wind or solar energy alone. But carbon dioxide is different. A catalyst powder made of simple and easy to access ingredients like iron has been found to change carbon dioxide into fuel through a single chemical processing step.
The carbon dioxide is placed in a reaction chamber with hydrogen gas. The two gases react together, with a catalyst that turns the carbon in the carbon dioxide molecules into a separate molecule, linking with the hydrogen and becoming hydrocarbon - the molecule that makes up jet fuel. The oxygen atoms that are left from the carbon dioxide link up with the hydrogen atoms to make water.
This chemical reaction was found at the University of Oxford by chemists there. Consistent research showed that the carbon dioxide in a small reaction chamber that was set to 300° Celsius and pushed to an air pressure of ten times that of sea level produced a conversion rate of 38% of the carbon dioxide into a new chemical product. Almost half of those produced were jet fuel hydrocarbons, giving researchers hope that with a little more time and experiments, the number of hydrocarbons produced will increase enough to be able to use this process to power aircraft regularly around the world.