The production of solar fuel is doubled by using 3D printed reactor cores at ETH Zurich.


Researchers at ETH Zurich have made a groundbreaking development in the field of renewable energy by creating a 3D printed ceramic structure optimized for use in solar reactor cores. The team utilized a novel 3D printing methodology that allows for the fabrication of porous ceramic structures with complex pore geometries. This innovative design enables solar radiation to be more efficiently transported into the reactor’s interior, resulting in a doubling of the production yield of solar fuels compared to previous designs.

The project, which is being funded by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, involves researchers from two ETH Zurich groups: André Studart, an ETH Professor of Complex Materials, and Aldo Steinfeld, an ETH Professor of Renewable Energy Carriers. The technology for 3D printing these ceramic structures has been patented, with Synhelion, an ETH Zurich spinoff company, recently acquiring the license.

The solar reactor plays a crucial role in the production of renewable energy. It is exposed to concentrated sunlight via a parabolic mirror and can reach temperatures of up to 1500℃. Within the reactor, a thermochemical cycle occurs, splitting water and CO2 captured from the atmosphere to create a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide called syn-gas. This chemical mixture can then be processed into liquid hydrocarbon fuels like kerosene, which is commonly used in the aviation industry.

Traditionally, the porous ceramic structures in solar reactors have isotropic porosity, which can limit fuel yield by reducing the force of solar radiation as it travels into the reactor. To address this challenge, the research team at ETH Zurich developed a novel 3D printing methodology that allows for the production of structures with complex pore geometries. Specifically, hierarchically-ordered designs that incorporate exposed channels and pores, becoming narrower towards the rear of the reactor, have proven to be especially efficient. This design enables the incident solar radiation to be absorbed over the entire volume of the ceramic structure, allowing the structure to reach the required 1500℃ reaction temperature and boost fuel generation.

The ceramic structures were produced using an extrusion-based 3D printing process, and a new ink was created with low viscosity and a high concentration of ceria particles. These characteristics maximize the amount of redox active material in the printed structures. The team conducted extensive testing to investigate the interplay between radiant heat and the thermochemical reaction, demonstrating that their hierarchical structure can produce twice as much fuel as uniform structures when exposed to the same concentrated solar radiation.

The development of 3D printed ceramic structures for solar reactor cores exemplifies the potential of additive manufacturing in the sustainable energy sector. It allows for the optimization of renewable energy production and contributes to the economic viability of sustainable aviation fuels. The ongoing efforts of ETH Zurich in this field have already resulted in the production of liquid fuels from air and sunlight, further solidifying their commitment to revolutionizing the renewable energy landscape.

Skoltech, a team of researchers, has developed a unique method of manufacturing solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) using micro-stereolithography and an office projector. By incorporating a hierarchical lattice structure into the 3D printed fuel cells, the team has increased their power output by enhancing their ionic conductivity. This advancement is crucial in accelerating the industrial adoption of SOFCs.

In another exciting development, the HyP3D project has made a breakthrough in the production of high-pressure hydrogen using ceramic 3D printing. Collaborating with French 3D printing OEM and service bureau 3DCeram, the HyP3D project aims to demonstrate the feasibility of high-pressure Solid Oxide Electrolysis Cell (SEOC) technology. By combining this technology with advanced ceramics 3D printing, the project aims to enable efficient and sustainable production of high-pressure hydrogen.

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If you’re interested in pursuing a career in the additive manufacturing industry, visit 3D Printing Jobs for a selection of available roles that can kickstart your career.

The featured image portrays an artist’s impression of a 3D printed ceria structure with a hierarchically channeled architecture. This image is from an article published in Advanced Materials Interfaces, Vol. 10, Issue 30, 2023, available at

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