The University of Cape Town (UCT) is one of the partners in a €40 million (approximately R718 million) three-year research project that aims to develop and improve next-generation catalysts that will play a large role in decarbonising the aviation sector by creating sustainable aviation fuels.

Professor Michael Claeys, the director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis at UCT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, is the principal investigator of the UCT team that is partnering on the Catalyst Research for Sustainable Kerosene (CARE-O-SENE) project, which is led by Sasol and Germany’s Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (Helmholtz Centre for Materials and Energy, HZB).

CARE-O-SENE is a German–South African research project which will see seven German and South African partners working together on fuel catalysis research and technology development. Their goal is to make large-scale production of green kerosene possible by 2025.

“The aim is to decarbonise the aviation sector and make it sustainable over the long term.”

“The CARE-O-SENE project is about making the future fuel for aviation,” Professor Claeys said. “The aim is to decarbonise the aviation sector and make it sustainable over the long term, by focusing our research efforts on the catalysts that are needed to produce green kerosene on a commercial scale. We are undergoing a huge change in our global energy systems, and every country has to play a role in that. If we can replace kerosene with a defossilised alternative, carbon dioxide emissions will be greatly reduced overall. If we are successful, this research will make it possible for the aviation industry to become carbon neutral.”

The project’s goal of producing sustainable aviation fuels more efficiently relies heavily on Fischer-Tropsch (FT) technology, which is a way of converting synthesis gas containing hydrogen and carbon monoxide to hydrocarbon products. “While conventionally kerosene is made directly from oil or indirectly from coal or natural gas as fossil-starting materials, sustainable fuels can be made from green hydrogen and carbon dioxide from hard-to-abate industrial, biogenic or atmospheric sources,” Claeys said. “Our catalysts speed up chemical reactions, making it possible to produce more fuel and improve the quality of the end product.

I have worked closely with Sasol, the forerunner in industrial FT technology, for many years, and it is a privilege to work with them and our other international partners on this important project. The technology needed to develop sustainable fuels at large scale from green hydrogen and sustainable carbon sources is an area in which South Africa can become a world leader.”

Funding released in October

With the project’s funding being released in October, the group’s research can now get fully under way. Claeys’ team will ultimately comprise seven or eight people, including two professors, two postdoctoral fellows, two PhD students, and other researchers. The UCT team’s work will focus on finding ways of improving the catalysts being used.

“These catalysts have to be stable over a long period of time so that it makes sense to use them on a large scale. The UCT team studies them at working conditions; we run reactions over the catalysts and have developed tools that allow us to characterise how they change in the reaction environment. We want to understand how the catalyst functions so that we can optimise it and ultimately make it usable on an industrial scale.”

“We have to act faster these days in order to make the energy transition a reality.”

According to Claeys, the three-year timeline is unusual for a project of this scale which aims to commercialise a catalyst, but the team has vast experience and expertise on its side. “Luckily, Sasol is very heavily involved, and they already have a lot of catalysts they’ve developed. So, our international consortium is building on this expertise. If we were starting from zero, this type of project would take 15 to 20 years.  Also, we have to act faster these days in order to make the energy transition a reality.”

Ramaphosa at launch

The CARE-O-SENE project was announced at a ceremony held at Sasol’s global headquarters in Johannesburg in May, with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in attendance. Speaking at the launch, President Ramaphosa highlighted the importance of green fuels for global sustainability, and for South Africa’s economic recovery.

“The Catalyst Research for Sustainable Kerosene project focuses on the development of catalysts for green jet fuel,” Ramaphosa said. “This is one of the several areas of cooperation between companies, universities, and government agencies on the technology that will in the end shape and reshape our economies.”

He added that the government had chosen the economic path of pursuing green hydrogen options “to further develop our economic development. This includes the opportunity to supply green hydrogen to the European Union, which is looking to import ten million tons a year by 2030 … The development of a green hydrogen economy is a national economic priority for us.”

Other CARE-O-SENE project partners include the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and INERATEC GmbH, with €30 million in funding provided by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and a further €10 million by Sasol.

Claeys, who’s been working with and researching Fischer-Tropsch processes since doing his PhD thesis on the topic 25 years ago, said South Africa and Sasol are world leaders in the technology, and it is exciting to be part of a team and a project that could play a key role in creating a more sustainable world.

And although the timeline is tight, he thinks CARE-O-SENE is on track to change the world. “I believe we ought to be able to do it in three years. We are building an excellent team here at UCT, and our partners are leaders in the areas of the work that they are tackling. It’s an honour to work with some of the best in industry and academia on such an important project.”

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