Researchers at ETH Zurich have developed a 3D printed ceramic solar reactor core.
Hold on, what on Earth is a solar reactor?
It’s a device for electrochemically generating liquid fuels from the air, water and sunlight. The process involves exposing a reactor core to concentrated sunlight. Parabolic mirrors reflect sunlight onto the core, raising its temperature to a blistering 1500C.
At those temperatures interesting things happen.
Water and CO2, which has been previously captured, are split into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. These can then with a simple chemical process made into liquid fuels, such as kerosene.
Kerosene and similar fuels are popular for aviation, heating, rocketry and other applications.
The interesting part is that when burned, these synthetic fuels generate CO2, but only in the same amount that was originally used to create the fuel. In other words, they are literally carbon neutral.
But what about the reactor core? It’s a structure made of cerium oxide, a ceramic that’s able to withstand the tremendous heat involved in the process. The input materials are in pores throughout the core, and are exposed to sunlight.
The problem has been that the sunlight just doesn’t penetrate far enough into the core, with temperatures lowering as you go deeper.
The researchers were able to design an extremely complex structure to counteract this effect — and its complexity means it can only be produced with 3D print technology.
The new design channels sunlight further into the core, enabling increased production. They say the approach is able to generate twice as much fuel simply from swapping in the new core design.
This development could enable mass production of such fuels that might be easily adopted by several industries that are less able to convert to electric alternatives.
That could indeed be the case, as the process has apparently been patented, and a license has been granted to Synhelion, a company that is in this business: “We turn sunlight into fuel”.
Their job just got a lot easier.