Interview with Gianluca Ambrosetti, Founder of Synhelion #36
Turning sunlight into fuels
May 19, 2022
In the latest deep dive series, we have learned about the climate impact of air travel (Part 1) and about potential solutions for sustainable aviation (Part 2).
Today, we have the honor to hear in more detail about a startup that is turning sunlight into a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and other transportation fuels!
We interviewed Gianluca Ambrosetti, the CEO and Founder of Synhelion. The technology that Gianluca and his colleagues have developed is mind-blowing and has significant potential in helping the world to transition toward a green long-distance transportation system.
☀️ Introducing Synhelion
The problem that Synhelion is tackling
The worldwide transportation sector has an enormous climate impact. The IEA estimates that it accounted for 8.5 Gt of emitted CO2e in 2019, which corresponds to approximately 17% of the total GHG emissions. This is because the transportation sector heavily relies on fossil fuels.
Finding sustainable substitutes for fossil fuels is a key challenge that needs to be solved to reach a net-zero economy. Synhelion is exactly working on this topic by producing carbon-neutral fuels to power airplanes, ships, trucks, and cars.
Synhelion is a Swiss startup that turns sunlight into carbon-neutral fuels.
The company started with a crazy idea at ETH Zurich: “What if we could reverse combustion?”. After years of research, the research group proved this to be possible. Today, their innovative technology is on the brink of industrialization. Synhelion is building the world’s first solar fuel production plant with the long-term vision of a clean long-distance transportation system.
🧠Wisdom from Gianluca
What’s the founding story of Synhelion?
A few years ago, I was working for a company that was intensively collaborating on solar technology with the lab of Prof. Dr. Steinfeld at ETH Zurich. This lab was and still is focused on renewable synthetic fuels. Through this collaboration, I met Philipp Furler (Synhelion’s other founder). Both of us believed that taking the decade of research on sustainable fuels to the market was an exciting opportunity.
Prof. Giorgio Mazzanti was a key person, who helped us transform this thought into a company. With Giorgio’s help, we kickstarted the discussions with important industrial partners and managed to secure a collaboration with Eni. Thanks to this partnership, Synhelion came to life in early 2017.
What was your role in the early days of the company and how has it evolved since then?
In the beginning, my role was very close to research. I was doing pure technology development because that was the core focus of Synhelion back then. To give you an example, I worked intensively on the solar receiver, which is a core component of Synhelion’s technology.
When the company started to gradually grow, my role in the organization changed as well. Today, being the co-CEO of the company, I work a lot on strategic matters. However, I still take time to work on technical challenges and brainstorm with the team. I believe that deeptech companies, like Synhelion, need to have people in management positions that have a deep understanding of the specific technology that they develop.
On your website you argue that Synhelion technology is able to turn sunlight into sustainable fuels, how does that work?
Let’s start from the basics. The core idea behind a synthetic renewable fuel is to reverse combustion. When you burn fuel, you produce CO2, water vapor, and heat.
Now, if you take water vapor, atmospheric CO2, and a large amount of energy, you can revert this combustion process and obtain fuel and oxygen (see diagram below).
Our technology uses a thermochemical process in turning the atmospheric CO2 and water vapor into fuel. This thermochemical process requires high temperatures of heat, which we produce with concentrated solar power.
We can further understand this process by breaking it down into the four key components:
- Mirror field (concentrating sunlight)
- Solar receiver (High-temperature process heat)
- Thermochemical reactor (Synthetic fuel production)
- Thermal energy storage (24/7 heat delivery)
1. Mirror field
First, concentrated solar power is generated. This happens by concentrating the sunlight with the help of mirrors onto a solar receiver. We decided to use concentrated solar power, as it is one of the cheapest forms of energy.
2. Solar receiver
Second, the captured solar radiation heats up a heat transfer fluid. The heat transfer fluid is a hot gas that comes in the receiver at approx. 700 degrees and goes out at approx. 1200 degrees. A part of the heat transfer fluid is also stored to continue to drive the thermochemical processes during the night (see thermal energy storage).
3. Thermochemical process
Third, a thermochemical process takes place transforming the CO2 and water vapor into synthetic fuel (solar fuel). This process requires a high temperature. The temperature is achieved by concentrated solar power in components 1 and 2.
4. Thermal energy storage
We also need to store some heat, because these processes have to run continuously also during the night when sunlight is unavailable. Therefore, we store part of the solar heat in thermal energy storage.
What is the current production capacity of the technology and how do you plan to scale it up?
We are currently setting up our first industrial plant in Germany in partnership with the German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy. Even though Germany might not be the optimal location for maximizing fuel production from a solar irradiation point of view, we estimate that the nominal capacity of the plant will be between 100’000 and 200’000 liters of fuel per year. However, we will not operate the plant continuously, and hence we expect the actual fuel produced to be ~10 times less than the nominal production (approximately 10’000 liters a year).
We aim to reach a production capacity of a few hundred thousand liters of fuel per year by 2025 and then scale up from there (see roadmap below).
What is Synhelion’s business model?
Today, and certainly for a few more years to come, Synhelion will handle the entire value chain. We take care of technology development, setting up the production plants, producing the fuel, and selling it. Our target customers include airlines, car manufacturers, and fuel distributors.
In the future, once the technology will be mature enough, we could also imagine adopting a licensing model, where we would act as technology providers but not as plant owners and fuel producers.
What is your advice to people interested in building deeptech companies to fight climate change?
My first advice is to do it! Go out and build the company you are dreaming of. Even if you fail, it will still be the most rewarding professional experience you can have. There is no degree or university that can teach you so much in a condensed period of time.
The second point I want to mention to deeptech founders is that you have to be aware that your company is drastically different from a software one. The world, out there, often benchmarks companies based on the scalability, cost structure, and return on investments of software businesses. This practice is challenging for hardware companies because they will rarely be able to achieve the same numbers in terms of speed, cost-effectiveness, etc. Hence, as a deeptech founder, you need to be ready to face challenges and setbacks. But once your technology will be up and running it will be incredibly fulfilling!
If you liked this article, please share it with your climate friends!🌍
Pauliina’s greetings from SF and LA
The past few weeks have been full of action now that I finally recovered from covid! Last week, I met so many amazing people at an MCJ dinner, Your Picks dinner, CTAN’s Future of Grid Energy Storage event, She Sends female climber event, and finally on the YPE’s hike on Angel Island!
So far, I’ve come to this conclusion:
Last Sunday, my friend Ilona Raimas and I drove the Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We visited the California Science Center and got to see all those incredible airplanes and spacecraft. Today, I visited also the LACI (Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator).