Design Product Synthetic Fuels

In regard to the efforts in making transportation more sustainable, e-fuels aren’t just a technical issue, but also a political one. Europe and European companies in particular are working on industrial-grade facilities.

According to DEKRA e-fuel could be distributed via the existing filling station network. Photo: Shutterstock/Concept Photo

Fewer CO2 emissions – that’s the declared target in transport. Alongside electromobility and fuel cells, synthetic fuel is another option for closing in on this goal. The basic idea: Since fuel ultimately consist of hydrogen and carbon, it can in principle be produced in a climate-neutral way, for example with the help of biomass or green electricity. Fuel produced using green electricity is also called e-fuel. Though it must be noted that in the public debate, the term “e-fuel” is often used as a synonym for “synthetic fuel”.

“Synthetic fuel can be designed to continue to meet the standards for established fuels such as gasoline or diesel. Existing combustion vehicles can easily fill up with e-fuel – in pure form or as an admixture of classic gasoline or diesel,” says Erik Pellmann, Head of Powertrain & Exhaust Emissions at the DEKRA Technology Center in Klettwitz, Brandenburg. “Such e-fuel could be distributed via the existing filling station network.”

Beyond these technical and logistical aspects, e-fuel is a highly political issue. Supporters see it as an opportunity to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible in the existing fleet, which numbers around 240 million passenger cars in the EU alone. Opponents emphasize that the amount of green power required to generate such e-fuel is immense and will far exceed the amount of renewable energy available in the EU for the foreseeable future. Therefore, e-fuel should be reserved for transport that cannot or can only with difficulty be converted to electric or fuel cell propulsion, like aircraft, ocean-going vessels, and certain types of commercial vehicles. Last but not least, Formula 1 plans to gradually switch to e-fuel starting in 2025. Still: “At least opponents and supporters agree on the fact that airplanes and ocean-going vessels depend on e-fuel,” says Pellmann.

Still lacking large Facilities for Industrial Scale Production

Something still missing for the use of e-fuel on a larger scale are the facilities to produce this synthetic fuel as sustainably and economically as possible on an industrial scale. A few months ago, the German Federal Ministry of Transport published a call for funding for the construction and operation of power-to-liquid (PtL) development platforms for Germany. Such plants convert “power”, i.e. electricity, into liquid fuel.

The EU is also funding relevant projects as part of the seventh framework research program and the “Horizon 2020” program. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology has made a name for itself in application-oriented research into synthetic fuel. It operates two small plants, which are able to sustainably produce gasoline, diesel, and kerosene. One uses biomass, the other green electricity for production.

The Issue carries more Weight in Europe than on other Continents

In terms of concrete projects, the “e-fuel” topic has a higher priority in Europe than in the USA or Asia, at least at present: European companies are often in charge of industry-related projects. For example, Porsche and Siemens Energy, together with other partners, are planning to build the world’s first integrated commercial large-scale plant for the production of climate-neutral e-fuel in Chile. The plant is expected to produce 130,000 liters as early as 2022, rising to 550 million liters annually by 2026. The plant will use wind power to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, as well as filter CO2 from the air, which it will then convert into methanol alongside the hydrogen. Methanol is an intermediate product that the industry has a lot of experience with. According to Porsche’s plans, it will then be processed into fuel at the plant using technology from ExxonMobil – for motor sports, and also for production sports cars in the future.

Synthetic Kerosene for Aviation

A plant with an annual production capacity of 100 million liters of e-fuel is currently being built in Norway. The pilot phase will start in 2023 with ten million liters. Participants in the joint venture include the Swiss company Climeworks, whose technology can be used to capture CO2 from the air, and the Dresden-based company Sunfire with its PtL technology. Above all, the project partners are aiming for synthetic kerosene for aviation.

The Icelandic company Carbon Recycling International (CRI) is also active in the far north. The company has already been operating a pilot plant for the production of methanol on Iceland since 2011 and is currently building further industrially relevant plants in Sweden and Norway. CRI doesn’t filter CO2 from the air, but straight from the exhaust gas streams of producing companies. The Icelanders are also planning a methanol plant of this kind in Anyang, China, together with a Chinese consortium, planning to remove 160,000 tons of CO2 from exhaust gases each year.

Heading toward more Sustainable Shipping

Maersk invested in California-based start-up Prometheus Fuels. Photo: Maersk/Prometheus

Maersk, the world’s largest operator of container ships, invested in California-based start-up Prometheus Fuels in September 2021. The Danish logistics company views its technology for producing synthetic fuel as a possible path to more sustainable shipping. Incidentally, BMW already invested in Prometheus in June 2020.

Oil companies also see an opportunity to make their business more sustainable with e-fuel. For example, the Spanish company Repsol 2020 has started building a plant in Bilbao for the production of e-fuel. It’s expected to reach full capacity within four years. Initially, however, it will start with just 50 barrels of synthetic fuel per day. Competitor Shell, in turn, plans to build a commercial bio-PtL plant at the Rhineland Refinery to produce sustainable kerosene for aviation. In addition to green power, wood residues will serve as biomass for production. Construction of the plant is scheduled to begin in 2023. The initial capacity after possible commissioning at the end of 2025 would then be 100,000 metric tons.

Last but not least, a non-profit organization has started to produce e-fuel in Germany: Atmosfair, known as a provider of climate offsets, can produce a synthetic intermediate in a PtL plant in Emsland, which is then processed into kerosene by the Heide refinery. In 2022, the current trial operation will be transferred to regular operation. Annual capacity: 350 metric tons – a symbolic figure by comparison.

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