Solar-Powered Transportation Without Solar Panels!

Synhelion uses simulation software to develop its sustainable solar fuels.

As part of the Ansys Startup program, Synhelion uses simulation to develop its solar fuel technology. With a goal of creating sustainable fuels for conventional engines, at production scale, the ongoing partnership between the two companies allows Synhelion to use Ansys’ multiphysics simulation solutions to reduce its prototyping time. So far, the solar company continues to be making strides. During its Series B funding period, it raised 16 million Swiss francs (about 16.2 million USD) and is now developing an industrial production plant to make solar fuels in Germany.

An overview of the Synhelion solar fuel technology. (Image courtesy of Ansys and Synhelion.)

An overview of the Synhelion solar fuel technology. (Image courtesy of Ansys and Synhelion.)

Synhelion generates incredibly high heat (over 1,500 degrees Celsius or 2,732 degrees Fahrenheit) to make synthetic fuel using solar energy. Such extreme temperatures mean that most conventional materials and equipment are nonfunctional. To avoid expensive and time-consuming physical prototyping, Synhelion uses Ansys Fluent and Mechanical software to simulate different materials and setup conditions. As part of the startup program, the company gets to work directly with experts at Ansys to optimize the solutions for its purposes.

“Ansys’ CFD and FEA simulation allows us to develop, test and validate extremely complex technology to create sustainable solar fuels,” said Lukas Geissbühler, head of Thermal Systems at Synhelion, in a press release. “Particularly, in developing our solar receiver, we needed sophisticated and predictively accurate software and Ansys delivered. Thanks to Ansys’ software, we could reduce prototyping time and build our first industrial receiver more quickly.”

The Ansys Startup Program

The goal of the Ansys Startup program is to make its software solutions affordable for early-stage enterprises. The program currently includes nearly 1,500 companies from over 50 countries. In addition to offering its software solutions, Ansys employees also work directly with companies to help them achieve their simulation goals.

Synhelion became a member of the program in early 2020 via the Ansys Swiss Elite Channel Partner, CADFEM. Where Synhelion uses simulation software to prototype its thermochemical reactions, other companies use it to prototype cell phones, optimize medical devices or evaluate civil engineering designs, among other applications.

Ansys supports the startup community as most early-stage enterprises cannot afford its, and many other, simulation software solutions. However, simulation software is critical in early development to help companies rapidly develop and evaluate design options before building physical prototypes.

In addition to software, the program also offers access to the Ansys Learning Hub, which includes detailed instruction to expand the technical expertise of engineers.

Ansys is not alone in this strategy. Other software giants, including Oracle for Startups, Siemens’ Solid Edge for Startups, and NVIDIA Inception, are also looking to bring startups into their portfolio of clients. This class of programs aims to make software affordable for startup companies and introduce co-marketing strategies to benefit enterprises.

Synhelion Is Making Sustainable Fuels for Conventional Engines

As part of the Ansys Startup program, Synhelion hopes to develop proprietary technology and expand the applications of its unique solar energy production. The company began with a simple question: “Can combustion be reversed?” Its objective is to use solar heat to convert carbon dioxide and water into synthetic fuels compatible with conventional aircraft turbines and combustion engines. Its technology uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a solar receiver to achieve incredibly high heat that can then drive the reactions that generate synthetic, sustainable fuels— with no solar panels required.

These solar fuels are produced with energy from the sun and can be used in existing engines. This represents an exciting advancement for areas of the transportation system that cannot be electrified, like long-haul trucking and air travel. Basically, electric solutions are limited for any system where the weight or reduced efficiency of lithium-ion batteries will negatively impact the industry. Instead, synthetic gasoline, diesel, crude oil and more can be used in existing fuel infrastructure to replace fossil fuels for these systems.

With this technology, Synhelion aims to eliminate the 8 billion tons of CO2 emitted annually by the transportation industry. Other companies are already starting to take an interest, and as of March 1, 2022, Swiss International Air Lines announced that it would be the first airline to adopt the solar aviation fuel pioneered by Synhelion. Following the opening of the company’s fuel production plant, SWISS and the Lufthansa Group will begin using the company’s solar kerosene sometime in 2023.

A summary of the sun-to-liquid process for generating solar fuels. (Image courtesy of Synhelion.)

A summary of the sun-to-liquid process for generating solar fuels. (Image courtesy of Synhelion.)

Solar energy capture technology can also be used in industries beyond fuel production and transportation. For example, concentrated solar heat can manufacture cement and steel more sustainably in industrial applications. In February 2022, CEMEX and Synhelion announced that they had successfully linked the clinker production process with Synhelion’s solar receiver technology, a crucial step toward achieving carbon-neutral cement production. Limestone, clay and other raw materials went through calcining and clinker processes at 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,732 degrees Fahrenheit). These two phases are typically responsible for 40 percent of the CO2 produced during cement manufacturing.

Ansys Uses Its Startup Program to Support a Sustainable Future

Ansys representatives were interviewed to assess where the company is headed with its suite of simulation solutions. They highlighted that the company is always looking to expand its offerings and improve the utility of the software. For example, with the recent transition to a work-from-home environment, the company pushed to make its solutions available in the cloud to allow engineers to access simulation tools anywhere. Plus, the company continues expanding the advanced material modeling options within its FEA solutions to support the simulation of increasingly complex materials.

One area the company is excited about is the ability of its startup program to support early-stage enterprises developing technology to fight the climate crisis.

“Ansys is passionate about creating a sustainable future from road infrastructure to aviation and everything in between,” said Shane Emswiler, senior vice president of products at Ansys. “By helping to enable a solution for sustainable fuels, we are driving sustainable innovation forward on the ground and in the air, addressing climate change challenges, and moving toward a cleaner future.”

Beyond Synhelion, other startups have joined the Ansys Startup program to further sustainable technologies. One example is Lightyear, a company based in the Netherlands that is developing a car with a roof made from solar panels so that drivers can charge the vehicle as they drive during the day. Unlike conventional electric vehicles, this one has a solar panel design that allows it to be driven for months without charging, according to the company. Additionally, Climeworks is another Swiss company in the program looking to improve carbon-capturing technology to help remove CO2 from the air.

Overall, startup programs from Ansys and other tech giants appear to provide early-stage companies with the best of both worlds: access to affordable software solutions and increased exposure of the brand and its technology. It will be interesting to see how these companies navigate the transition from a startup to a mature enterprise and how that impacts early relationships developed as part of partnership programs. Thankfully, one thing remains constant: some of the brightest minds in the world are using engineering innovation to tackle the existential crisis of climate change.