New syn­thetic fu­els will suck CO2 from at­mos­phere

NZ4WD - - NEWS -

Up un­til re­cently, a car­bon­neu­tral in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine was the stuff of dreams. Now it may soon be­come re­al­ity. The se­cret lies in syn­thetic, or car­bon-neu­tral, fu­els, whose man­u­fac­tur­ing process cap­tures CO2. In this way, this green­house gas be­comes a raw ma­te­rial, from which petrol, diesel, and sub­sti­tute nat­u­ral gas can be pro­duced with the help of elec­tric­ity from re­new­able sources. “Syn­thetic fu­els can make petrol and diesel-pow­ered cars car­bon-neu­tral, and thus make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to lim­it­ing global warm­ing,” says Dr Volk­mar Den­ner, chair­man of the board of man­age­ment of Robert Bosch. Bosch ex­perts have put an ex­act fig­ure on the con­tri­bu­tion that could be made solely by the Euro­pean car fleet: by 2050, the use of syn­thetic fu­els as a sched­uled sup­ple­ment to elec­tri­fi­ca­tion could save up to 2.8 gi­ga­tons of CO2 – that is three times Ger­many’s car­bon-diox­ide emis­sions in 2016.

Low-soot com­bus­tion

A look be­yond Europe’s bor­ders shows how ur­gent it is to fur­ther re­duce traf­fic emis­sions: if the cli­mate tar­gets set by the Paris con­fer­ence are to be achieved, CO2 emis­sions from traf­fic world­wide will have to be re­duced 50 per­cent over the next four decades, and by at least 85 per­cent in the ad­vanced economies. “Achiev­ing our fu­ture cli­mate tar­gets calls for other in­tel­li­gent so­lu­tions apart from elec­tro­mo­bil­ity,” Den­ner says. Af­ter all, even if all cars were to drive elec­tri­cally one day, air­craft, ships, and even trucks will still run mainly on fuel. Car­bon-neu­tral com­bus­tion en­gines that run on syn­thetic fu­els are thus a very promis­ing path to ex­plore – also for pas­sen­ger cars. In ad­di­tion, syn­thetic fu­els can be de­signed to burn prac­ti­cally soot-free. In this way, the cost of ex­haust-gas treat­ment can be re­duced. One fur­ther cru­cial ad­van­tage is that the ex­ist­ing fill­ingsta­tion net­work can con­tinue to be used. The same ap­plies to the ex­ist­ing com­bus­tio­nengine ex­per­tise. More­over, even though elec­tric cars will be­come sig­nif­i­cantly less ex­pen­sive in the years ahead, the de­vel­op­ment of these fu­els may be worth­while. Bosch has cal­cu­lated that, up to a life­time mileage of 160,000 kilo­me­tres, the to­tal cost of own­er­ship of a hy­brid run­ning on syn­thetic fuel could be less than that of a long-range elec­tric car, de­pend­ing on the type of re­new­able en­ergy used.

A new lease on life

Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, it is al­ready pos­si­ble to man­u­fac­ture syn­thetic fu­els. If the elec­tric­ity used is gen­er­ated from re­new­ables (and thus CO2-free), such fu­els are car­bon-neu­tral and very ver­sa­tile. The hy­dro­gen ( H2) that is ini­tially pro­duced can be used to power fuel cells, while the fu­els cre­ated fol­low­ing fur­ther pro­cess­ing can be used to run com­bus­tion en­gines or air­craft tur­bines. Pi­lot projects to com­mer­cialise syn­thetic diesel, petrol, and gas are cur­rently un­der­way in Nor­way and Ger­many. In ad­di­tion, be­cause syn­thetic fu­els are com­pat­i­ble with the ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture and en­gine gen­er­a­tion, achiev­ing a high de­gree of mar­ket pen­e­tra­tion would take far less time than elec­tri­fy­ing the ex­ist­ing ve­hi­cle fleet. Nor will any­thing change for the driv­ers of older ve­hi­cles, as even clas­sic cars will still run on syn­thetic petrol – in terms of chem­i­cal struc­ture and fun­da­men­tal prop­er­ties, it is still petrol.


De­spite ev­ery­thing, con­sid­er­able ef­forts are still needed be­fore syn­thetic fu­els can be­come es­tab­lished. The pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties are still ex­pen­sive, and there are only a few test plants. The Ger­man Min­istry for Eco­nomic Af­fairs and En­ergy is thus supporting syn­thetic fu­els. Syn­thetic fu­els are made solely with the help of re­new­able en­ergy. In a first stage, hy­dro­gen is pro­duced from wa­ter. Car­bon diox­ide is added to this to pro­duce a liq­uid fuel. This car­bon can be re­cy­cled from in­dus­trial pro­cesses or even cap­tured from the air us­ing fil­ters. Com­bin­ing CO2 and H2 then re­sults in the syn­thetic fuel, which can be petrol, diesel, gas, or even paraf­fin.

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