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Carbon-Neutral Fuels: The Truth

by | Aug 18, 2022 | Carbon Footprint & Carbon Accounting

Climate change is one of the biggest problems humans have to face and solve in the 21st century. As humanity continues to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the environment is gradually getting destroyed- which could hamper the existence of humans and other species on the planet.

According to a few environmental studies, one of the main factors contributing to climate change is humans’ automobiles for traveling and pleasure. In 2020, cars generated around 3 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions globally. This is one of the primary reasons why the automobile industry needs to gradually transition to an electric future or other advanced technologies.

A new fuel available today will allow people to travel in their automobiles without emitting any emissions. The new fuel is known as ‘Carbon-neutral fuel’, ‘Synthetic fuel’, or ‘eFuel‘. Big companies and businesses like Audi, Porsche, McLaren, etc., are currently investing their resources to explore a feasible way to scale carbon-neutral fuels to supply them around the world.

What is Carbon-Neutral Fuel?

Carbon-neutral fuel or Synthetic fuel is the result of combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide molecules. These molecules are taken from the atmosphere and have the potential to turn into fuel that humans can then use for their automobiles. Though the process of producing carbon-neutral fuels may sound easy, in reality, it is, in fact, a difficult and laborious process.

Carbon-Neutral Fuels: The Truth

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To manufacture synthetic fuels, carbon dioxide must be extracted from the atmosphere and heated to around 1800 degrees. The heating stage breaks the carbon molecules down and turns them into carbon monoxide (CO). The carbon monoxide is then combined with hydrogen extracted from salt water to form methanol. The product is further treated to obtain fuels known as a carbon-neutral fuels.

A Solution to Climate Change?

Carbon-neutral fuels, when burned, do not increase CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. These fuels are said to neither contribute to carbon emissions nor reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide in the air is actually food for trees and plants. Carbon dioxide in small amounts is good for the earth as it provides food for plants and keeps the earth warm. However, excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (like today) can lead to global warming. Synthetic fuels can help prevent excess amounts of carbon dioxide from accumulating. It extracts carbon from the air and converts it into e-fuels.

To achieve climate targets, carbon emissions globally from automobiles will have to reduce by 50 percent over the next 2 to 3 decades. Even with electric vehicles coming into the picture, certain vehicles like planes and ships will still run on fuel. Carbon-neutral combustion engines operating on e-fuels are thus an effective path to explore. Approximately 2.8 gigatons of carbon could be saved using carbon-neutral fuels by 2050.

Issues With Carbon-Neutral Fuel

Synthetic fuels are not a recent discovery. However, they have come back into the picture due to climate change, and after Porsche claimed that carbon-neutral fuels could allow the company to continue selling internal combustion engine cars even after the United Kingdom bans all fossil fuel engine sales around 2030.

Everything has its pros and cons, and so do carbon-neutral fuels. The transition to these fuels is not going to happen overnight. It will take quite some time to see synthetic fuels instead of conventional fossil fuels. The supply of carbon-neutral fuels today is essential to tackle climate change. Around 4 percent of admixture is expected by 2025 and 12 percent by 2030. 100 percent supply will only be reached by 2050. That is too late to mitigate the current environmental crisis.

Synthetic fuel is expensive. The prices are just ridiculous, according to a few experts. The e-Fuel Alliance expects e-fuels to cost between 1.38 and 2.24 euros by 2050- $1.63 to $2.64. According to Bosch, e-fuels would cost 1.20 euros by 2030- $1.41. Other estimates put the costs of e-fuels at 3 to 4 euros a liter by 2030- equal to more than $13 a US gallon.

The above cost is much more than the current US average of $3.20 a gallon. This could result in automobile owners ditching their internal combustion vehicles and returning to regular gasoline.

The manufacturing of carbon-neutral fuels is another problem. The process of mixing hydrogen and carbon dioxide to form e-fuels is a lengthy process with several stages. Each stage consumes a lot of energy and is expensive.

The main element in the fuels is hydrogen. According to Transport and Environment, hydrogen fuel cells are less efficient than batteries- with the deficit falling to two times less efficient by 2050. Synthetic fuels are four times worse than batteries. Powering current automobiles with e-fuels rather than batteries will need four times as much electricity production. This seems impractical.

E-fuels won't save the internal combustion engine - International Council on Clean Transportation

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Hydrogen produced with renewable energy could help decrease the cost of e-fuels and make them more environmentally efficient. However, hydrogen is not a green fuel; only 1 percent of all hydrogen is produced with renewable energy.

Adding all of the issues together, carbon-neutral fuels are technology too late to solve the world’s climate crisis. It will also cost too much money and power which isn’t efficient. However, synthetic fuels can reduce 85 percent of carbon emissions from vehicles by 2050. While countries with high renewable energy will be able to reduce 100 percent of carbon emissions from vehicles today. Therefore, it is up to us whether we want to reduce emissions today or in 2050.

 

Author

  • The author has done a master's in Environmental science and is currently working as chief Environmental Advisor with New Delhi State Government.

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