How much interest is there in e-fuels at the moment? Do you get a lot of inquiries in this area?
Grigoriadis: Our experts have a lot of discussions with potential customers. These cover a variety of applications in the field of transport, but particularly long-haul trucks, aircraft, and ships, where electrification presents a greater problem. But it is important not to forget that the use of synthetic fuels goes far beyond the mobility sector. For example, e-methanol is not only a fuel, but also a raw material for the production of green polymers. To ensure that these applications are taken into account, we prefer to talk about e-crude, in other words synthetic crude oil, rather than e-fuels. You are working closely on the potential side effects of e-crude.
What factors need to be taken into account in the production process?
Binder: Until now, the focus has always been solely on the CO2, in other words, the question of how emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can be reduced by the use of synthetic fuels. But that is just one of many factors. There are other effects that need to be considered, such as the worsening of water poverty or emissions of carcinogenic substances. Therefore, we need to prevent e-crude and other CO2 reduction technologies from having negative impacts elsewhere, even though they cut greenhouse gas emissions.
What sort of negative impacts are you referring to?
Binder: The European Commission specifies a total of 16 categories that are decisive for the environmental footprint of products. Alongside water poverty and emissions of toxic substances, these include ozone depletion, eutrophication, and acidification. The use of very rare raw materials, such as platinum and iridium, is also included. They are required for the production of green hydrogen, among other things. It is possible that replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives would result in a reduction in CO2 emissions, but would also cause unwanted damage elsewhere.
Grigoriadis: Any company that is investing large amounts of money in new plants or supply chains is putting itself at considerable risk if it does not analyze these effects in advance. This is why we use life cycle engineering (LCE), which is a new way of evaluating risks of this kind. In contrast to conventional life cycle assessments (LCAs), LCE begins before the start of a project, rather than evaluating the effects afterward. Life cycle engineering needs to become the basis for strategic corporate decision-making.
What does the life cycle engineering process involve?
Grigoriadis: We assess the potential environmental impacts in advance and minimize them as far as possible by choosing suitable technologies. We can carry out these assessments using physical simulation models, for example. We have decades of experience of doing this in the field of automotive engineering, where we have been able to use simulations to replicate the emissions from combustion engines in real-life operation, for example.
Binder: The first stage is to carry out a hotspot analysis based on the 16 categories. Because you cannot compare them with one another, we first need to make them comparable. In the next stage, we look at the specific processes and, for instance, identify that two or three of them have a particularly significant impact on the environmental footprint of the plant. As soon as we have found these key influencing factors, we can start looking for technical improvements or alternatives. These may involve replacing a PEM electrolysis process with high-temperature electrolysis or moving certain stages in the process to another location.
Grigoriadis: On the basis of these scenarios, we then begin discussions with our customers. However, they often need to take other constraints into account, for instance long-term supply contracts for specific components or raw materials. We may then need to consider whether retaining these contracts is a sensible option for the long-term corporate strategy or whether it would not be preferable to look for better alternatives.
What is the challenge of life cycle engineering?
Binder: Life cycle engineering is a complex challenge that cannot be overcome by a single expert or a single team. You need access to knowledge from a variety of fields, including process technologies, manufacturing processes, and raw materials. At IAV, we have specialists in electrolysis, catalysis, and batteries and having this expertise in-house is crucial for LCE. Moreover, we can not only identify alternatives, but also implement them to ensure that a well-meaning investment in carbon-neutral technologies does not turn out in retrospect to be harming the environment.