Fahrzeuge und Infrastruktur

Synthetic fuels for comprehensive sustainable mobility


To achieve its aim of becoming a climate-neutral company by 2025, AMAG is placing a particular focus on battery-powered electric vehicles. When examining the big picture, however, the fact remains that there will still be between 1.5 and 2.5 million passenger cars with combustion engines on Swiss roads in 2040. In 2022, AMAG therefore confirmed its participation in the ETH spin-off Synhelion with a further tranche of capital. Synhelion is working on synthetic CO2-neutral fuels that are produced using solar energy.

AMAG aims to become a climate-neutral company by 2025. Additionally, a separate climate and innovation fund supports initiatives and start-ups that contribute to the decarbonisation of the overall system. We entered into the first commitment in 2021 with our investment in Synhelion, a spin-off of ETH Zurich. Synhelion develops solar fuels such as paraffin, diesel and petrol to enable CO2-neutral mobility. These can directly replace fossil fuels and are fully compatible with the existing global infrastructure for fuel. The sustainable solar fuels are also CO2 neutral because they only emit as much CO2 during combustion as was used for their production. In the course of the last financing round in December 2022, AMAG confirmed its commitment to Synhelion. Other investors include Swiss, Eni, SMS group and CEMEX.

But why this commitment? AMAG CEO Helmut Ruhl: “The future of mobility is electric. At the same time, there is enormous potential to reduce the CO2 emissions from existing vehicles by using fuels that are almost CO2 neutral. We want to contribute to that.” With regard to road traffic, calculations by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) show that there will still be between 1.5 and 2.5 million passenger cars on the road in Switzerland with internal combustion engines in 2040, including around 150,000 vintage vehicles. In other parts of the world, it will take much longer for the number of vehicles with combustion engines to drop significantly. To achieve Switzerland’s net-zero emissions target by 2050, AMAG sees Synhelion’s solar fuels as a complementary solution to the electrification of road transport.

How is Synhelion positioned today and how does the company want to develop further – an interview with CEO and co-founder Philipp Furler.

What drives you at Synhelion?

We believe in a globalised world where people can take a more sustainable approach to travel and maintaining personal and professional relationships. Since liquid fuels continue to be required for travel, transport and freight, we need to switch to sustainable, cleaner alternatives. Our alternative solar fuels contribute to independence from fossil fuels and close the CO2 cycle.

Where does Synhelion stand today in the development of solar fuels?

Last year, we coupled our core technical components and successfully produced synthesis gas on an industrial scale. This means we have reached the last decisive technical milestone for the industrial production of solar fuels. We are currently building our first plant for the industrial production of solar fuel in Jülich in northern Germany. This demonstration plant will be completed by the end of 2023 and will produce several thousand litres per year. We will start up the first commercial production plant in 2025 in Spain with a capacity of 1.25 million litres per year.

How does your technology work?

Synhelion has developed four innovations to convert solar energy into liquid fuels: heliostats, a solar receiver, a thermochemical reactor and a thermal energy storage system.

The mirror field, which is made up of the heliostats, concentrates sunlight onto the top of the solar tower, where the receiver is located. The receiver converts the concentrated sunlight into high-temperature process heat of over 1000 °C. Some of the heat generated is then fed directly to the thermochemical reactor, which converts CO2, water and bio-methane into synthesis gas, a mixture of H2 and CO. The synthesis gas produced is subsequently processed into liquid fuels such as paraffin, petrol or diesel using standard gas-to-liquid technology.

What happens to the rest of the heat produced?

To ensure continuous, 24-hour operation of the system and achieve high year-round utilisation, the remainder of the heat generated during the day is temporarily stored in a thermal energy storage unit and used whenever there is no sunlight, for instance at night.


Philipp Furler, CEO and co-founder of Synhelion
Philipp Furler, CEO and co-founder of Synhelion

You need carbon to produce the solar fuels. Where do you get the carbon from?

Synhelion’s thermochemical reactor can process a variety of carbon sources: from RED-II certified biowaste to recycled CO2 from industrial processes and CO2 extracted from direct air capture.

What specifically is used in the first industrial plant?

As CO2 from direct air capture is currently still very expensive, we will use a biogenic carbon source for our first industrial plant. Specifically, biowaste from a local paper mill. Today, this biowaste is not recycled further and is instead burned in the waste incineration plant. For us, however, this biowaste provides a valuable source of carbon.

What are the advantages of your technology?

Our technology is based on solar energy because it is one of the cheapest renewable energy sources. It is abundantly available and well distributed worldwide. As mentioned, we can store the solar heat generated during the day using our heat storage unit and thus produce fuel around the clock. Thermal energy storage is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than battery storage.

As far as the location of our plants is concerned, we do not compete with agriculture or other land uses, as our ideal locations are primarily desert areas with maximum solar radiation. Such areas are abundant all around the world. Moreover, our plants are self-sufficient in terms of energy and independent of the electricity grid. These are some of the advantages that allow us to produce cost-effectively and scale our technology quickly around the world.

What does Synhelion’s roadmap look like?

Within the next ten years, we are aiming for production costs of less than one Swiss franc per litre and a commercial production capacity of 875 million litres of fuel per year. This corresponds to about half of the aviation fuel that is refuelled in Switzerland, or one fifth of current Swiss petrol consumption. By 2040, we want to increase our production capacity to 50 billion litres of solar fuel per year, which could cover about half of Europe’s aviation fuel needs, for example.

Doesn’t this require enormous changes to the transport and refuelling infrastructure?

No. Our fuels – whether solar petrol, diesel or paraffin – can directly replace fossil fuels and are fully compatible with the existing global fuel infrastructure.

How important are partners and investors like AMAG for you?

Hugely important. Firstly, the investments and commitment of our investors are a great endorsement of our performance, our success and our future prospects. Secondly, we have great technological and commercial synergies along the value chain and therefore benefit greatly from our partners. The investment and collaboration will significantly accelerate the scaling and commercialisation of our technology.

We share AMAG’s view that many different technologies are required to decarbonise road transport and achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2050. We see solar fuels as complementary to the electrification of road transport for those segments that cannot be electrified.

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