If you are planning to travel to the Magallanes region in southern Chile, you should wear warm clothes. This is because there is hardly anywhere else in the world where the wind blows as strongly as in this area, which takes its name from the Portuguese seafarer and explorer Ferdinand Magellan. For producers of renewable energies, the conditions not far from the South Pole are ideal. In the south of Chile, wind turbines achieve a capacity utilization factor of almost 74 percent, because statistically they can operate under full load for 270 days of the year. In Germany, the figure is only around 70 days, which corresponds to a utilization factor of just 19 percent.
For this reason, wind power can be generated much more cheaply in the Magallanes region than in Germany. It is no surprise that it is here that Porsche, with its partners Siemens Energy, the energy companies AME (from Chile) and Enel (from Italy) and the Chilean oil company ENAP, is building the first pilot plant for synthetic fuels of its kind in the world, with funding of 8.2 million euros from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action as part of the National Hydrogen Strategy. The Haru Oni project (which means “strong wind” in the language of the indigenous people) will produce the first 130,000 liters of e-fuels this year. The project partners plan to increase the capacity of the pilot plant in two stages: by 2024 to around 55 million liters and by 2026 to around 550 million liters of e-fuels per year. Porsche intends to use the e-fuels from Chile in its own vehicles with combustion engines, such as its 911 model.
Making combustion engines climate friendly
This example shows that not all climate-friendly cars are battery electric vehicles, and the combustion engine is not necessarily a climate culprit. There are several sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels such as gasoline, diesel, heavy oil, and kerosene. One example is the e-fuels that are being manufactured in Chile with water and CO2 from the air. In this process, renewable electricity is used to produce synthetic methanol, which is converted into fuel with the help of ExxonMobil (methanol-to-gasoline or MtG). The production of fuels of this kind takes exactly the same amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as is released later when the fuels are burned. This makes them climate neutral.
However, fuel can also be manufactured from biomass. Because the first generation of biofuels were made from arable crops like corn, this led to competition with the agricultural land used to grow food and resulted in the acrimonious “food or fuel” debate. “That’s no longer an issue,” says Bastian Lehrheuer from the Chair of Thermodynamics of Mobile Energy Conversion Systems and the manager of the Cluster of Excellence “The Fuel Science Center” at RWTH Aachen University. “The second generation of biofuels was made entirely from waste materials and, for the third generation, care is being taken to comply with even stricter sustainability criteria, for example in relation to land use.”
Attractive for existing vehicles and remote regions
The big advantage of synthetic fuels is that many of them can be used in existing vehicles, which would make these vehicles significantly more climate friendly. It is important to remember that gasoline and diesel vehicles will remain part of our everyday lives in Germany for decades to come. “From an economic perspective, synthetic fuels bring huge benefits. They can be made available all over the world and can fill the tanks of the vehicles already on the roads,” says Helmut Becker, long-standing automotive industry expert and former chief economist at BMW. “There are 1.6 billion cars with combustion engines in the world and they can’t all be electrified. That’s why we need a liquid fuel that can be used in the same way as gasoline or diesel. The only option here is synthetic fuels.”
Becker also mentions the competition between electric cars and other electricity consumers: “E-fuels will enable us to use renewable energy from the southern hemisphere, where the sun shines a lot of the time, the wind blows strongly, and there is little local demand for energy. We can produce much less renewable electricity here, so it makes more sense to use it in electric appliances or in industry.”
Synthetic fuels are already in use on a smaller scale. Biodiesel is blended with diesel and sustainably produced ethanol with gasoline. In technical terms, this is no longer a problem: “Many of the synthetic fuels are so similar to their fossil equivalents, that they could be used as full replacements for diesel or gasoline, without the vehicles needing to be adapted,” says Lehrheuer. “In other cases, minor modifications would be required, of the kind currently made in CNG and LNG vehicles.”
Aviation and shipping need synthetic fuels
Alongside the cars already on the roads, other areas that would benefit from synthetic fuels are those where electrification would be difficult, most importantly aviation and shipping. The international maritime industry transports around 90 percent of all the goods that are traded worldwide and is responsible for two to three percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This trend is growing rapidly. Because the amount of goods shipped across the world’s oceans is likely to increase significantly in the next few decades, this will be accompanied by a noticeable rise in emissions. Estimates indicate that there is likely to be a 250 percent increase by the middle of the century. To protect the climate, diesel and heavy oil need to be replaced with climate-friendly fuels, with the aim of making the international shipping industry climate neutral by 2050.
Promising new candidates include hydrogen, ammonia, and synthetic methane, methanol, and diesel. In September 2021, the first container ship powered by synthetic natural gas (SNG) produced using renewable energy put to sea from the northern German port of Brunsbüttel. The fuel for the ElbBlue was produced using wind energy, water, and carbon dioxide from a biogas plant.
Airlines are also planning to provide green transport solutions in the future. This is why aircraft manufacturers are carrying out extensive research into climate-neutral alternatives to kerosene. Alongside battery electric and hydrogen drives, Airbus is also investigating sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). An Airbus A319Neo with one jet engine running entirely on SAF took off for the first time in October last year. The fuel was manufactured by Total Energies from used cooking oil and other waste oils. The alternative fuel will reduce CO2 emissions by 85 percent over the aircraft’s entire life cycle, compared with conventional avgas.
Airbus’ competitor Boeing is also trialing SAF as a replacement for kerosene. In October 2021, a jumbo jet left Tucson airport in Arizona on an almost four-hour test flight with one of its four engines powered solely by SAF. According to Sheila Remes, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability at Boeing, the tests show that: “SAF can fully replace conventional jet fuel in the long term and is a viable solution to decarbonize aviation over the next 20 to 30 years.”
Electric cars and synthetic fuels can coexist
The use of synthetic fuels in aircraft and ships seems to be a done deal. But what role will they play in cars? Bastian Lehrheuer believes that battery electric vehicles should be the main solution for individual mobility. “But we also need synthetic fuels to allow all the other cars to become climate neutral.”
One argument often used against synthetic fuels is their relatively poor energy efficiency. The German motoring organization ADAC calculates that only 10 to 15 percent of the energy actually reaches the wheels, in comparison with 70 to 80 percent in a battery electric vehicle. “We have a global surplus of renewable energy, which makes the efficiency of these fuels a secondary factor. The argument should not be used to play one technology off against another,” says Lehrheuer. “We are currently importing 75 percent of our energy requirements in the form of fossil fuels. In the future, we will simply import energy in the form of synthetic fuels, from Chile or North Africa.”
Ending the ideological debates
But for that to be possible, we need to be making the necessary investments now, because new production plants for synthetic fuels will likely take around ten years to build. “We don’t yet have the political support or the long-term commitment that we need,” says Lehrheuer. “This is why we must put a stop to the ideological debates and finally begin a more objective discussion on this subject. For example, governments should not be requiring the use of specific technologies, but instead should impose clear and, if necessary, strict conditions for all types of powertrains and fuels. The engineers’ job is to find the technology-neutral solutions that will meet these conditions.”