It sounds like science fiction: the Swiss company Synhelion produces liquid fuel from concentrated solar energy. Founded in 2016, the company has managed to raise numerous fundings in recent years. In August 2022, the process was successfully presented for the first time in a demonstration plant operated by the DeutschesZentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) in Jülich. Industrial operation is scheduled to start here before the end of this year. METEC exhibitor SMS group has already been a strategic partner of Synhelion since November 2021. Reason enough to take a closer look at the energy pioneers.
Synhelion is the first company in the world to produce synthesis gas - a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide - on an industrial scale using only solar energy. In order to do this, process heat of more than 1,500°C is generated in so-called solar towers. Liquid fuels, including kerosene, gasoline or diesel, can be synthesized from the synthesis gas in standard chemical processes. All end products are compatible with common combustion engines and aircraft engines.
Synhelion's "solar fuels" thus represent a climate-neutral alternative to fossil fuels. In addition, the process can also be used in industrial processes, whereby it could contribute to the decarbonization of the metal industry.
Synergy with SMS group
The high-temperature technology offers numerous synergies within the portfolio of the SMS group, which has a long tradition in the decarbonization of steel- and metal-producing industries. The internationally active group has an extensive portfolio of technologies that utilize or generate green energies. These are mainly used in steelmaking and processing operations.
Therefore, Synhelion and SMS Concast, a company of the SMS group based in Zurich, entered into a strategic partnership back in November 2021. The connection was obvious, as Synhelion is a spin-off of ETH Zurich. Together, the companies now want to actively shape the energy transformation of the metals industry. In a first step, SMS Concast invested massively in Synhelion's solar technology as part of a capital increase.
When the partnership was announced, Dr. Philipp Furler, CEO and founder of Synhelion, said: "The SMS group will support us with its comprehensive know-how in plant design and operation as well as in environmental technology. Together, we will accelerate the commercialization of our technology worldwide and integrate our solutions, such as thermal energy storage, for further applications in the metals industry."
Tim Ovelgönne, Corporate Development at the SMS group and responsible project manager, emphasized the great potential of the versatile sun-to-liquid technology and called the investment an "important step in the decarbonization strategy of the SMS group."
"World first" in Jülich
With the financial resources provided by SMS, Synhelion plans to start regular operation of its solar fuel production plant in Jülich before the end of this year. The plant covers the entire process: from the concentration of sunlight to the production of the synthetic liquid fuel. The infrastructure comes from the DLR Institute for Solar Research. It operates the two solar towers and an almost ten-hectare field with more than 2,000 movable spikes (heliostats) that capture sunlight and direct it to the towers.
Synhelion says it can produce solar fuels here at a price that is competitive with fossil fuels. The company is receiving further financial support for the construction from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection (BMWK).
Sectors such as aviation in particular are turning to alternative fuels such as hydrogen or synthetic kerosene. This is because long-haul transport requires energy densities that cannot be achieved with current battery technology. However, liquid synthetic fuels can do this, making them an ideal energy carrier.
Synthesis gas to water and solar fuel
So how exactly does the process work? The synthesis gas needed for the fuels is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The starting materials for production are therefore simply water and carbon. The latter is extracted from RED II-certified carbon dioxide and methane from biowaste to ensure clean production. Converting the feedstock into liquid fuel requires a great deal of energy. This comes from a single renewable source: the sun.
Solar radiation is reflected by a mirror field, concentrated onto a receiver, and thereby converted into high-temperature process heat. This heat is fed to a thermochemical reactor, which converts carbon dioxide and water together with biogas or natural gas into synthesis gas. The synthesis gas is then processed into gasoline, diesel or kerosene using a classic gas-to-liquids technology.
The system feeds excess heat into a thermal energy storage (TES), which enables continuous operation. In the future, this technology will thus be able to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide in a wide variety of proportions - from pure hydrogen to synthesis gas.
Sunlight in the metal industry
Although the company's initial focus is on the mobility sector, the process is also to be transferred to other sectors. And this is where the SMS group comes in: In metallurgy, for example, process heat generated by the sun at temperatures of over 1,500 °C could be used for energy-intensive applications such as steel production. In addition, the heat could be transferred directly to the metal in all process stages or used to generate hydrogen.
"We immediately recognized the potential of the innovative process. Beyond solar fuels, the technology offers many potential applications in the steel industry. It helps to drive the green transition and thus the development towards a CO2-neutral and sustainable metals industry," said Dr. Stephan Feldhaus, CEO of SMS Concast.
Towards an emission-free future
In February, it was announced that Synhelion is involved in a fossil-free cement production project in the USA. The government in Washington D.C. is supporting the project with $3.2 million. The cement industry also uses fossil fuels on a large scale, which can be replaced by concentrated solar thermal energy.
The fields of application are therefore very diverse. The Synhelion plant in Jülich could go down in history as the first ever synthesis gas to be generated from pure solar energy. And the metallurgy and heat treatment industry can look forward to seeing what other innovations the cooperation between SMS group and Synhelion will deliver.
Further information on the SMS group and its cooperation with Synhelion will be available to all interested parties at METEC. The company can be found in Hall 1 / E40-41.