While batteries, biofuels, and fuel cells duke it out for a share of the low carbon mobility market, electrofuels have been loiting in the shadows, waiting to pounce. Now all of a sudden everyone is talking about electrofuels, and Porsche is partly to thank for that.
Electrofuels: What Are Those?
The field of electrofuels involves combining green hydrogen (typically sourced from water) with carbon (from ambient air or waste gases) to form drop-in replacements for gasoline and other liquid fuels.
If that sounds like something next-generation biofuels could do just as easily, well, maybe. However, all else being equal, electrofuels have two key advantages.
One advantage is the ability to soak up excess renewable energy from wind or solar arrays when demand is otherwise low. Grid managers can coordinate with electrofuel producers to manage electricity supply and demand more effectively under a scenario that includes significant variations in wind and/or solar availability. The excess clean kilowatts can be used to power an electrolyzer system, which pushes hydrogen gas out of water.
The other advantage has been thrown into stark relief by the twin crises of Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine and the growing roster of climate impacts, both of which underscore the fragility of the global food supply. Where energy crops compete for land with food crops, something has to give.
More & Better Electrofuels
The commercialization of electrofuels poses cost and technology challenges, but the idea is tantalizing enough to attract the big bucks. Back in 2010, the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E funding office launched itself off the ground with a roster of advanced electrofuel projects in its pocket.
ARPA-E initially leaned on bacteria and solar energy to push the electrofuel field, the idea being to mimic photosynthesis without involving conventional energy crops.
That was before the green hydrogen trend took off. Also, the carbon capture field had barely gotten off the ground in 2010. Now that both fields are maturing, electrofuels are expanding in other kinds of directions.
Last month, for example, the Energy Department awarded a $2.93 million grant to AirCapture, OCOchem, and other partners for an electrofuel project that involves sucking carbon dioxide from waste steam at a Nutrien fertilizer plant and combining it with green hydrogen. The result is formic acid.
“The formic acid can then be stored, transported, and used directly in many industrial, consumer, transportation, and agricultural industries,” the partners explain. “Additionally, it can be used to transport green hydrogen safely and cost-effectively in an energy-dense liquid carrier form to a customer site where the hydrogen can be released for industrial use or as a transportation fuel, replacing fossil fuels.”
Suddenly, An E-Fuel Hub In The EU
The Energy Department expects the Nutrien facility to produce an assessment of economic impacts including job creation, payroll, and taxes, along with community impacts. If all goes according to the plan, the data could help spur similar projects elsewhere.
Meanwhile, another electrofuel area crossed the CleanTechnica radar last fall, when Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund brought the US electrofuel startup Infinium under its umbrella.
Infinium plays its process close to the vest, but the basic idea is to step from synthetic gas to liquid fuel, using waste gas from industrial processes along with hydrogen.
“Many industrial processes result in the discharge of carbon dioxide (CO .).2) waste as part of their production. Infinium utilizes that CO2 waste and introduces hydrogen to the mix in a unique process. Together, they are converted to synthetic gas using Infinium’s proprietary, patented CO2Cat™ catalyst,” explains Infinium. “The synthetic gas is fed through a second reactor and proprietary production step to convert synthesis gas directly into liquid fuels.”
“These fuels are an instant replacement for traditional jet fuel and diesel, and can be directly used in planes, ships and truck fleets without changes in infrastructure or engine design,” Infinium asserts, adding that its e-fuel “results in greater than 95 % reduction in carbon emissions when used compared to traditional fossil-based fuels.”
Last February, Infinium partnered with the leading energy firm ENGIE to build the new “Reuze” e-fuels facility, as part of a major electrofuels and CO2 conversion hub in the works for the port of Dunkirk, in northern France.
Porsche Hops The E-Fuels Train
Those of you familiar with World War II history may have something to say about the Dunkirk location. If you do, drop us a note in the comment thread.
History aside, Porsche is already on board with the e-fuels idea. Back in 2020, the company hooked up with Siemens and other partners for the Haru Oni electrofuels pilot project in Chile, leveraging green hydrogen produced with wind energy (not to be confused with another green hydrogen project in the same region).
Our friends over at Nikkei Asia updated the partnership this week, reporting that “Porsche will start producing the fuel on a pilot basis at a factory it is building in Chile with Siemens Energy, the German firm that produces water electrolysis equipment, and other partners…About 130,000 liters will be produced next year, with plans to lift annual output to 550 million liters by 2026 — enough for 1 million vehicles.”
As for cost, Nikkei Asia notes that the figure could clock in at $10.00 US per liter at first, then drop to $2.00 once production is up to speed.
The initial aim appears to be satisfying fans of the Porsche’s popular — and profitable — 911 sports cars. Although Porsche has set about electrifying some of its models, apparently the company is skittish about messing around with its primary money-maker.
The Hydrogen Economy Is A Thing After All
For various reasons, battery-powered electric vehicles have caught and held the media spotlight as planet-saving heroes, and that has drawn public attention away from more sustainable solutions including mass transit as well as walkability and bike-ability.
The focus on battery-powered cars has also pulled the public eye away from the decarbonization movement in other leading sectors of the global economy, including agriculture as well as industrial processes. Intermediate, green hydrogen technology is beginning to take hold as an important cross-industry decarbonization tool that adds value to carbon capture systems.
Where all this will end up is anybody’s guess, but it sure looks like longtime fans of the global hydrogen finally have something upon which to hang their hats.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: New 911 GT3 (foreground) courtesy of Porsche.
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