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Synthetic fuels key transitional tool for decarbonising Europe’s road transport

April 14, 2020
Energy & Chemical Value Chain

Synthetic fuels could play a major role in reducing Europe’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in road transport until a fully electric vehicle fleet becomes a reality.

While electric vehicles (EVs) are set to establish a strong foothold in road transport through exponential growth in the coming decades, the traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles are expected to stay on European roads for years to come.

Making ICE vehicles greener will be key to reduce emission, and synthetic fuels will play a key role for that, according to many industry players at the IP Week event held in London earlier in the year.

In the UK, industry players’ thoughts were echoed by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which has urged the country’s government to increase biofuel usage of E10 (with 10% ethanol content) gasoline and B7 (with 7% biodiesel) diesel in pumps across the country.

The professional body also called for increased financial support to develop other sustainable and low-carbon fuels.

The Netherlands, Denmark, Slovenia, Norway, France, Sweden, Ireland and the UK have already announced plans for a phase-out of ICE vehicles between 2025 and 2040, targets many analysts have deemed as practically impossible to achieve.

Transportation is responsible for 24% of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA); road transport accounts for 75% of all transport emissions, increased annually by 1.6% in the past decade.

By the end of 2019, auto manufacturers around the world pledged to spend approximately $225bn in the pursuit of developing new EVs to reduce road transport’s reliance on fossil fuels.

However, consumers have deterred away from EVs for years due to concerns about the low energy density of batteries, limiting distances range; this is a hurdle the industry still needs to overcome.

Research published last year in the journal Joule estimated that for a 135 km range, EVs equal-cost oil price would be $66/bbl but increasing the range to 500 km moves up the equal-cost significantly to $243/bbl, highlighting another expensive battery-related obstacle that needs to be addressed before EVs can dethrone gasoline.

Significant investment in wide-scale charging infrastructure is also required by the public and private sectors.

Equally, there are sustainability issues surrounding lithium sourcing for battery-packs also needs to be addressed; most of the world’s lithium is derived from mines in Democratic Republic of Congo and the country has faced criticism for unethical practices such as child labour and abhorrent work conditions.

This is where synthetic fuels, which are not currently produced at an industrial scale yet, can potentially play a major role by enabling Europe to partially decarbonise its road transport while EV technologies and economics are improved.

Sustainable synthetic fuels include electro fuels (efuels) and synthetic biofuels.

Efuels are produced via captured CO2 and hydrogen derived from electrolysis of water, while synthetic biofuels are made through a chemical or thermal treatment of biomass.

The Fischer Tropsch synthesis process along with fossil carbon sources serve as the backbone technology used in the production of synthetic fuels.

Low-cost sustainable electricity to produce low-carbon hydrogen, along with the development of the supply chain, will likely play a pivotal role in the development of the synthetic fuel industry.

Research published by the UK’s Royal Society in 2019 stated that countries with an “an abundance of renewable wind, tide or solar energy sources” will likely produce and export synthetic fuels at scale (click here for full report).

Countries with established renewable energy infrastructure may reap full benefits of reducing production costs of synthetic fuels, which the Royal Society estimates can be reduced from the current €4.50/ litre for diesel equivalent efuel price to a range of €0.60-1.50/litre by 2050.

Synthetic fuels can be deployed without modifying existing infrastructure and vehicles and can be added to conventional gasoline to help reduce CO2 emissions from vehicles already on the road.

This gives synthetic fuels a competitive edge over the other major road transport decarbonising tool hydrogen; according to Toyota Motor Europe’s general manager Stephan Herbst, hydrogen requires specific storage tanks to maintain its minus 253 degree Celsius temperature in order to subdue hydrogen’s explosive nature.

Synthetic fuels do have the advantage of being easier to store and transport compared to electricity and hydrogen, but still suffer from thermodynamic conversion losses, clocking in around 15% efficiency rates in ICE engines, according to Concawe, a European crude oil industry trade group (click here for full report).

This pales in comparison to engine efficiency rates of battery powered EVs, which has a nearly 70% engine efficiency rate based on power generation point to the final user.

Despite this drawback, synthetic fuels could still play a crucial role in decarbonising the ICE fleet as it can be deployed using current transportation and storage infrastructure.

The director general at Fuels Europe, the industry’s largest trade group, has argued that synthetic fuel production can also play a role in decarbonising refineries.

John Cooper said electrifying refineries could serve as the first step, followed by using carbon and storage technologies to simultaneously curb refinery emissions and produce renewable hydrogen.

Synthetic fuels can then be produced from the captured carbon and green hydrogen, with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality.

“The feedstock of the refinery would grow from today being crude oil to biocrude, to lowest grades of industrial plastic wastes, captured CO2, and then also those refineries can be expected to collaborate with others in an industrial cluster, potentially sharing carbon collection or hydrogen distribution with others” said Cooper during IP Week.

Achieving economies of scale through improved technologies and production processes will still be futile for the synthetic fuels industry unless policies are implemented by the European Commission in its new Green Deal – the EU’s executive arm aims to reach net-zero emissions in the 27-country bloc by 2050.

The EU’s Green Deal may be delayed as the region struggles to cope with the economic ramifications of coronavirus; it remains to be seen how much legislative and financial support is given to synthetic fuels once the economy starts to recover from the pandemic.

By Nazif Nazmul

Source: ICIS News

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