(TNS) — As automakers invest heavily in electric vehicles for the future, some also are dabbling in technology that could reduce emissions from internal combustion engines and help fulfill pledges to achieve carbon neutrality.
It’s more expensive and energy-intensive to make synthetic fuels, which is why they aren’t widely available to consumers right now. But some experts and manufacturers see synthetic fuel as just another lever — in addition to batteries and fuel cells — enabling the transportation industry to further reduce its reliance on carbon-emitting fuel to power vehicles, boats and airplanes.
And though many automakers are going all-in on the development of hybrid and battery-electric vehicles, a full transition from gas-powered vehicles still is years away. Even when EVs are more widely adopted, millions of internal combustion engine vehicles will remain on the road. Already, about half of the vehicles that will be on the road in 2030 have already been sold, most containing gas- or diesel-powered engines, according to a 2019
“There’s no silver bullet solution,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights. “But if they can make the transition from crude oil-based fuels to synthetic fuels, it should be an improvement and it should help support the existing vehicle fleet for a while and keep those vehicles going.
“Ideally, you don’t want to scrap relatively young vehicles if you can avoid it because now you’ve wasted resources there as well. So it’s a matter of finding the right balance.”
Though synthetic fuels are not widely available, experts say they could eventually act as a sort of interim solution until electrified vehicles take hold. And they could have useful applications in other transportation sectors, such as aviation.
“The demand (for a carbon-free transportation) is big enough that there are a lot of different elements to the grand plan and synthetic fuels and electric vehicles both play into a grand plan — to the extent that we have a plan,” said
What is synthetic fuel?
Synthetic fuels are manufactured via chemical processes, Abuelsamid explained, in contrast with crude oils that are extracted from the earth and refined. One type that involves taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into fuel has recently generated interest, he said.
Here’s how that works. The fuel is produced first by extracting hydrogen from water, adding it to recycled CO2 gas that’s already in the air and mixing the two together to form a fuel liquid, Bosch, which also researches synthetic fuels, explains on its website.
Though it notes that the manufacturing process remains “painstaking and expensive” for the time being, the multinational automotive supplier, citing experts, sees potential for gas- and diesel-powered vehicles to become carbon neutral as early as 2025 with a transition to synthetic fuels.
“It’s certainly more expensive than pumping petroleum out of the ground and refining that,” Szybist said.
The process is not just expensive, it also takes more energy to convert the gas to a liquid. Using electricity to recycle CO2 from the air is an energy loss, extracting hydrogen from water is another loss and then making it into fuel is a loss, explained
“In the end, it comes down to how much energy you’re willing to give up,” he said.
When developing synthetic fuels, it’s important that the hydrogen and CO2 be obtained using renewable energy; otherwise, synthetic fuel wouldn’t be carbon-free. A company using electricity from the
Still, Abuelsamid said, synthetic fuels “have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of net carbon that’s put into the atmosphere, compared to just taking crude oil and refining it.”
And, he noted, the
Exploring its use
To help it get there,
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That range of solutions might be necessary, UM’s Schwank explained, because “electric vehicles have a weakness and that is the energy storage.” Synthetic fuels could be a help in that, too, but automakers are already investing billions in EVs.
“Car companies have only a limited bandwidth,” Schwank said. “It’s a costly exercise for society to switch from fossil fuels to renewable-electricity-driven transportation.”
Experts do see the potential for synthetic fuels to reduce emissions for other modes of transportation, such as airplanes and ships, that aren’t likely to go electric in the near future.
“Weight is critical for aircraft, and batteries are heavy,” Abuelsamid said. “But if you can replace … gas with a synthetic version that is less carbon-intensive, that would actually be a real benefit.”
“I’ve been talking a lot about what the future of a decarbonized transportation system looks like, and it’s going to be a mix,” said Szybist of the
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