April 22, 2024
Synthetic Fuel

Fueling the Future: Synthetic Fuel as an Alternative Energy Source

With concerns growing over reliance on fossil fuels and their impact on climate change, researchers are exploring synthetic fuels as a potential replacement. Synthetic fuel, also known as e-fuels, are energy-dense liquids that can power vehicles, ships and planes in the same way as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel but with lower greenhouse gas emissions over their lifecycle.

What are Synthetic Fuels?

Synthetic fuels are manufactured by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide using renewable energy sources like solar or wind power. This process, known as power-to-liquid or power-to-fuel technology, converts electricity into liquid or gaseous fuels that can be used directly in today’s engines and infrastructure with no need for engine modifications or new fueling stations. Two of the main types of synthetic fuels being developed are synthetic gasoline (e-gasoline) and synthetic diesel (e-diesel).
E-gasoline and e-diesel have the same energy density and performance characteristics as conventional gasoline and diesel from fossil fuels. They can be delivered through the same pipelines and tanks trucks and fill up vehicles at existing gas stations. This compatibility with existing infrastructure is a major advantage of Synthetic Fuel over other low-carbon alternatives that require switching to electric vehicles or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles which would require whole new fueling networks.

Reducing Emissions through Renewable Energy

The production of synthetic fuels results in few to no net carbon dioxide emissions when renewable energy and carbon captured from the air is used. Researchers estimate that if synthetic fuels were produced from solely renewable energy and carbon dioxide captured directly from the atmosphere, they could potentially reduce total life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions by over 80% compared to conventional gasoline or diesel made from fossil fuels.

Some prototype plants are already capturing carbon dioxide from industrial sources or directly from the air using large fans and chemical reactions. The captured CO2 is then combined with hydrogen split from water using renewable electricity in combination with thermochemical processes to produce liquid synthetic hydrocarbon fuels. As the production of renewable energy from solar and wind becomes cheaper, the costs of Synthetic Fuels should decline as well.

Overcoming Technical and Economic Challenges

While the concept of synthetic fuelsseems promising for reducing transport sector emissions, bringing the technology to commercial scale still faces significant technical and economic challenges that will require further research and development. Key barriers include improving efficiency and reducing the large amount of energy currently needed to produce e-fuels, as well as bringing down costs to be competitive with conventional fossil fuels.
Some efforts underway include developing better catalysts to speed up chemical reactions and using excess or low-value renewable energy from times of peak production that would otherwise go to waste. Researchers are experimenting with novel methods such as coupling fuel production to desalination plants or using supercritical water or plasmas to increase conversion efficiency. Public private partnerships will be important for testing early plants and achieving economies of scale. If the challenges can be overcome, wide-scale adoption of synthetic fuels could potentially fulfill future fuel demand while enabling deep decarbonization of sectors that rely on liquid fuels.

Application in Various Modes of Transport

With further optimization, synthetic fuels show promise for powering the various modes of transport that currently rely on fossil fuels including aviation, shipping and long-haul trucking. These sectors face greater challenges in transitioning to electricity due to weight and range limitations of battery technology. E-fuels offer a potential pathway to lower emissions through the use of sustainable renewable energy and would allow these industries to function largely within their existing fuel distribution networks and vehicle fleets.
For aviation, e-kerosene or e-jet fuel produced from renewable energy could enable cleaner flying and reduce the sector’s growing environmental impact. Several airlines have already tested regular passenger flights using synthetic paraffinic kerosene produced from biomass or fossil fuels with carbon capture. For maritime transport, e-bunker fuels with very low or zero sulfur content could help decarbonize shipping if methods for large-scale cost-competitive production can be established. In long-haul trucking, e-diesel may emerge as a viable substitute where battery size and charge time make all-electric vehicles less practical.

As climate policies strengthen carbon emissions targets around the world, synthetic fuels offer hope of continuing to power transport sectors reluctant or unable to electrify by utilizing sustainable renewable energies. While higher production costs currently limit scalability, ongoing research aims to enhance efficiencies and economics. If technical barriers can be overcome, synthetic fuel produced from non-biogenic renewable sources could potentially fulfill a sizable portion of future liquid fuel demand while making meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide. Further progress will depend on continued innovation and expanded public-private collaboration across the energy, transportation and industrial sectors.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research.
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it.