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Can E-Fuels Save the Combustion Engine?

Proponents say they should be part of a low-carbon future. But cost and efficiency remain hurdles.

5/16/2021 11:00:00 AM

Synthetic fuels known as e-fuels may provide a way to make everything from cars to jets greener without eliminating existing combustion engines

Proponents say they should be part of a low-carbon future. But cost and efficiency remain hurdles.

In 2019, German airline DeutscheLufthansaAGsigned a deal for the Heide Refinery in Germany to produce and supply the Hamburg airport with synthetic kerosene. The aim is to replace 5% of the fossil-based kerosene used to fuel jets at the airport with synthetic kerosene as early as 2024 through wind energy generated locally.

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The chief executive of the refinery sees applications for e-fuels in the chemical industry, too, saying e-fuels could slash the carbon footprint of the plastics industry and the emissions generated from producing goods ranging from smartphones and laptops to shampoo bottles and toys.

“The application of them is just so vast and basically in all the materials we are using day-to-day,” says Jürgen Wollschläger, Heide’s CEO.Shipping giantA.P. Moller MaerskA/S, meanwhile, sees e-methanol and e-ammonia as a promising way to power its fleet in the future and says customers have indicated they would be willing to pay more for green shipping as they seek to reduce emissions in their supply chains.

“The dialogue we’re having with our customers is promising,” says Morten Bo Christiansen, vice president and head of decarbonization at Maersk. “The technology is proven, mature and it can be scaled. There’s a huge investment cycle in front of us.”Maersk has said that it will have its first carbon-neutral vessel in operation by 2023 and is exploring e-methanol to power it. The company also is collaborating with the investment firm Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and some Danish companies to build Europe’s largest green ammonia facility in Esbjerg, on the Danish west coast.

How green is it?Much of the recent buzz around e-fuels has centered on autos, with some car makers looking at e-fuels as an additional route to environmentally friendly travel, along with electric and hybrid technologies.Porsche said last year that it is investing roughly 20 million euros in a synthetic-fuels plant in southern Chile, where wind power is naturally abundant. It plans to test the fuels first in its racing fleet and later in sports cars like the 911.

The company predicts the big cost gap between e-fuels and fossil fuels could narrow significantly in the next five years, depending on government taxes and subsidies. A tax on carbon would raise the cost of fossil fuels and drive an increase in renewable energy, which is needed to produce the green hydrogen used in e-fuels.

“If regulators put a cost on carbon emissions, e-fuels can potentially be a very competitive way to decarbonize,” says Michael Steiner, member of the executive board for research and development at Porsche.Mr. Steiner says the liquid nature of e-fuels makes them easy to store and transport to cities and regions where renewable energy is scarce, or where grid accessibility challenges the development of electric vehicles on a large scale.

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Some point out that EVs aren’t without environmental concerns of their own, including mining to extract lithium for batteries, as well as battery waste in the absence of highly developed recycling systems.Christian Schultze, director of research and operations at Mazda Motor Europe’s R&D center, says synthetic fuels could make older vehicles cleaner, significantly speeding up the reduction of CO2 emissions.

“The problem with emissions isn’t on the engine side; it’s on the fuel side,” he says. “Why do you want to scrap the internal combustion engine if I tell you we can make it extremely clean?”Critics, however, say vehicles running on e-fuels will never be as green as electric vehicles, partly because a great amount of energy gets lost during the process of converting electricity into liquid or gaseous fuels.

“There is little chance that burning e-fuels in an inefficient internal combustion engine could be a cheaper or more practical transport decarbonization solution than electric vehicles,” says Stephanie Searle, fuels program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Moreover, because renewable energy is the essential prerequisite for low-carbon e-fuels, there needs to be a substantial increase in renewable production to make e-fuels a reality on a larger scale.For now, capacity of e-fuels is very limited.Geert Decock, electricity and energy manager at Transport & Environment, a nonprofit promoting sustainable transportation in Europe, says the firm recently wanted to test e-fuels in a combustion-engine vehicle, but couldn’t buy 500 liters (132 gallons) of it.

The first step to making the technology a reality is to scale up refueling infrastructure, he says. “Get ports ready. Hydrogen hubs. Ammonia storage facilities,” he says. “That’s the kind of focus we want in the next decades, to roll out some of the infrastructure and get the costs down.”

Read more: The Wall Street Journal »

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