E-fuels: “bridge” fuels for short-term decarbonisation
Airlines, shipping and oil companies, couriers and car manufacturers are showing a growing interest in eco-friendly synthetic fuels, which may well ensure a sustainable transition for the industrial and infrastructural system
The development of ecological synthetic fuels – so-called “e-fuels” (electric fuels) – is experiencing rapid growth: there are increasing numbers of companies keen to launch experimental projects to exploit what could be considered to be a “bridge resource” capable of achieving the decarbonization objectives in the short term, alongside forms of electric and hybrid engines.
The production cycle is still under development and still very expensive, especially for large-scale use and in fuel-intensive sectors, such as shipping. The basic technology underlying e-fuels is not new. Almost a century ago, German scientists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch invented a method, known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, which mixes carbon monoxide with hydrogen to create synthetic oil by means of an electrolysis process powered by electricity generated from renewable sources. Unlike conventional fuels, e-fuels do not release additional carbon dioxide and are also compatible with internal combustion engines. They can therefore be used to power today’s vehicles, aeroplanes and ships as well as to use existing refuelling infrastructures.
Several airlines, freight forwarders and oil companies already have pilot projects underway to produce synthetic fuels or are experimenting with blends of e-fuels and conventional fuels. Even car manufacturers are investing in technology: some say that e-fuels could help keep older cars on the road, alongside electric and hybrid vehicles, while still meeting decarbonisation goals in a transition that would be sustainable for the industrial and infrastructure system.
Some oil giants are also focusing on e-fuels. In Spain, Repsol is investing 60 million euros to build synthetic fuel plant using carbon dioxide captured by a nearby oil refinery in Bilbao. The plant, which is expected to be commissioned in 2023, will produce 50 barrels of e-fuels per day during the pilot stage, and then expand production for commercial distribution of synthetic fuel for the transport sector. US corporation ExxonMobil is committed to investing three billion dollars by 2025 in low-carbon technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
E-fuels have also stimulated the interest of car manufacturers, such as Porsche, which together with Siemens Energy, Enel, ExxonMobil, Gasco and Enap, is working on the construction of industrial plant for the production of synthetic fuels in Punta Arenas, Chile, the first integrated commercial plant in the world producing synthetic fuels. In the aviation field, Klm Royal Dutch Airlines in January ran a commercial flight from Amsterdam to Madrid on synthetic fuel. The aeroplane used regular fuel mixed with 500 litres of synthetic kerosene produced by Royal Dutch Shell. Again in the aviation sector, Airbus is also looking into synthetic fuel in its efforts to develop the first zero-emission commercial aircraft in the world, which could be in service by 2035.
The latest company to invest in the sector is the giant Danish shipping company Maersk which on 23 September announced an investment in Prometheus Fuels, a startup based in Silicon Valley that has developed technology for direct capture of carbon dioxide in the air intended for efficient production of zero-emission navigation fuel. Maersk has joined a team of investors including BMW and Metaplanet. Maersk’s investment seeks to develop e-fuels that include alcohols produced from renewable energy sources. As Morten Bo Christiansen, decarbonisation manager at AP Moller-Maersk Group, explained: “Prometheus Fuels is developing very interesting and innovative technology to produce carbon-based e-fuels from direct capture of CO2 in the air. Electro-fuels are expected to play a key role in the decarbonisation of shipping and, if scaled successfully, Prometheus Fuels technology will address a key constraint for carbon-based electro-fuels: the competitiveness of direct air capture costs”.