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Pilatus sees bright future in solar fuels

By Lisa Gordon | June 14, 2024

Estimated reading time 3 minutes, 42 seconds.

Pilatus Aircraft is cooperating with fellow Swiss company Synhelion in an effort to scale solar fuels for the aviation industry. The aircraft manufacturer says the development is part of its commitment to consider sustainability in both present and future product developments, while speeding up the de-fossilization of air traffic.

“Pilatus aircraft are already certified to use sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is currently produced mainly from biomass or waste products,” wrote André Zimmermann, VP Business Aviation, Pilatus Aircraft, in an email to Skies.

“Recent calculations indicate, however, that this type of fuel will never be available in sufficient quantities, now or in the future,” he continued. By contrast, “the solar fuel pathway is carbon feedstock agnostic and can therefore tap into an abundant supply of carbon sources, including atmospheric CO2.”

Synhelion, a spin-off of ETH Zurich founded in 2016, aims to transform the transportation sector by replacing fossil fuels with clean and renewable solar fuels.

The company is currently commercializing its “sun-to-liquid” technology, which uses solar heat to recombine water and CO2 into hydrocarbon fuels. In Germany, Synhelion is now building the world’s first industrial demonstration plant for solar fuel—the facility is expected to produce small batches of fuel this year.

While large quantities of solar fuel are not yet available for testing in aircraft, laboratory results show that it complies with jet fuel standard ASTM D1655.

Zimmermann explained the production method produces a synthetic crude hydrocarbon oil that can be refined to the same variety of fuel types as fossil crude oil, using existing refinery infrastructure.

“As an additional advantage and in contrast to fossil fuels, solar fuels do not contain impurities such as sulphur and heavy metal contaminants,” he added.

Pilatus is so confident in the future of solar fuels that it became a shareholder in Synhelion this past April.

While industrial scale-up remains a financial challenge to conquer, Zimmermann wrote: “We see a future in which all Pilatus factory flight operations will be free of fossil CO2 emissions, and we believe that this future is not too far away.”

Over the next few years, efforts will focus on scaling solar fuels worldwide. Pilatus and Synhelion aim to roll out the greener fuel to the entire Pilatus customer fleet—more than 4,400 aircraft worldwide—within the next decade.

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1 Comment

  1. The collaboration between Pilatus Aircraft and Synhelion marks a significant and exciting step towards sustainable aviation. Pilatus’s commitment to developing solar fuels, which utilize CO2 and water, showcases their dedication to reducing carbon emissions. Synhelion’s innovative technology and Pilatus’s investment highlight a promising future for fossil-free flight operations. This initiative sets a positive example for the aviation industry and aligns with global sustainability goals. Stay tuned…

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