Synhelion inaugurates first industrial solar fuel plant

ETH Zurich spinout Synhelion has inaugurated what is claimed to be the world’s first industrial-scale solar fuels plant, using sunlight to produce synthetic fuels.

Aerial shot of DAWN
Aerial shot of DAWN - Synhelion

Located in Jülich, about 50km west of Cologne, DAWN is the culmination of nearly a decade of work since Synhelion was founded in 2016. The plant features a 20-metre-high solar tower surrounded by a mirror field to concentrate solar rays. Inside the tower is a solar receiver with an internal black surface that absorbs heat and transfers it to a thermochemical reactor, where it is then used to produce syngas or synthetic liquid fuels. The tower also houses thermal energy storage that facilitates solar fuel production around the clock. 

According to Synhelion, DAWN will produce several thousand litres of synthetic crude oil (syncrude) per year, with production expected to get under way later in 2024. The syncrude will then be transported to conventional refineries for processing into synthetic kerosene for aviation, or synthetic gasoline or diesel for road transport or maritime use.  

“Today is a historic day for Synhelion,” said Dr Philipp Furler, CEO and co-founder of Synhelion.

“The inauguration of DAWN marks the beginning of the era of solar fuels – a turning point for sustainable transportation. Our founding dream of producing renewable fuels from solar energy is becoming a reality. We are immensely proud of our great team and would like to thank all of our pioneers who have made this once seemingly impossible idea possible.”

Solar tower of plant DAWN with storage and showroom for Synhelion’s solar syncrude - Synhelion

Synhelion says it will begin building its first commercial plant in Spain in 2025, set to produce a total of around 1,000 tons of fuel per year. Within ten years, the company aims to achieve an annual production volume of around one million tons of solar fuel annually – an ambitious target that could have a significant impact on decarbonising sectors like aviation, but one which would require enormous investment in solar plants around the world.

“The large-scale use of sustainable aviation fuels is one of the most important measures to achieve the CO2 targets in aviation,” said Heike Birlenbach, chief commercial officer of Swiss International Air Lines, a long-time supporter of Synhelion.

“The inauguration of DAWN marks a milestone in this process. As strategic partners of Synhelion, Lufthansa Group and SWISS as investor are proud to support the market introduction of solar fuels and congratulate Synhelion on this extraordinary achievement.”