The Vital Role of Synthetic Fuels in CO2 Recycling

By Johnny Wood
Synthetic fuels could offer a route to a cleaner transport sector

The world’s attention is rightly on the urgent need to tackle the serious health and economic challenges of the devastating coronavirus pandemic. But the need to address greenhouse gas emissions remains as important as ever, especially when taking a longer-term view of the planet’s health.

The rapid rise of renewable energy sources over the past two decades has gone some way to mitigate the volume of CO2 we produce, but global emissions continue to increase – rising by as much as 1.7% in 2018. Current national government commitments to green their economies do not bridge the void between what we must do to meet climate change targets and what is being done.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) consistently point to carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies as an essential tool in this battle to cut carbon emissions.

The IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2019 says that CCUS could provide 9% of the cumulative emissions reduction needed to meet Sustainable Development Scenario targets between now and 2050.

Once carbon from energy production or industrial processes is captured, it can either be stored securely underground, or recycled and utilized in the production of synthetic gas or methanol. These products can then be used as alternative and greener fuels.

Closing the Carbon Loop

Synthetic fuels create a vital market for captured carbon emissions to be recycled as economies target net zero.

Methanol can be made using CO2 harnessed from industrial processes via CCUS technologies. Once purified, the CO2 is compressed using hydrogen and turned into synthesized methanol. When the hydrogen is produced from surplus renewable energy, the fuel is emissions-free.

“The fuels of the future will need to be ecologically as well as economically competitive,” says engineer Florian Möllenbruck of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS), who is pioneering research into turning CO2 into liquid fuels including methanol and synthetic gasoline.

Synthetic fuels like methanol have a similar volume and energy density to existing fuels, offering an alternative to petrol or diesel that can be used in existing internal combustion engines. They can also be manufactured as drop-in replacements for fossil-based jet fuel.

And, as direct alternatives, existing infrastructure can be used to distribute, store and deliver synthetic fuels.

“The beauty of synthetic fuels is that you don’t need new infrastructure to utilize them,” explains Professor Emmanouil Karakas, Senior Vice President and Head of Power and Energy Solutions at MHPS Europe.

“These fuels will have an important role to play because they are short-term enablers of decarbonization in different sectors.”

Synthetic fuels could be used to help decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors
In for the Long Haul

While a market exists for synthetic fuels to power automobiles, the main potential lies in their ability to reduce emissions in hard-to-electrify transport sectors like haulage, shipping and aviation.

The International maritime Organization aims to halve GHG emissions from shipping by 2050

With strict new emissions limits being imposed on shipping operators by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), including halving CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 2008 levels, cleaner fueling strategies are high on the maritime agenda.

A combination of hydrogen and recycled CO2 can be used to manufacture synthetic gas and methanol. But the green credentials of producing clean synthetic fuels come at a cost. The price-competitiveness of synthetic fuels is dependent on the cost of the clean energy used to produce them.

“Falling costs of renewables are being met with increased pressure for industry to decarbonize, which should increase the viability of producing synthetic fuels over time,” concludes Professor Kakaras.

CCUS as a transition technology is also growing over time, both on land and at sea. Onboard systems are being developed for ships to capture CO2 from marine exhaust gases, which can either be liquified or compressed to be stored in tanks and transported to land.

Today there are more than 50 CCUS plants operating or in development, and this number could grow to 2,000 by 2040 in order to meet global climate goals. Data from the Global CCS Institute, IEA and EPA shows such growth could potentially capture 2,800 million tonnes of CO2 each year – the equivalent of taking 594 million cars off the road.

Synthetic fuels offer a valuable way to recycle some of this CO2. Further development in the field could see synthetic fuels scaled up to help achieve the goal of reaching net zero.

Johnny Wood has been a journalist for over 15 years working in different parts of the world – Asia, Europe and Middle East. As well as an accomplished features writer he has edited several prestigious lifestyle magazines and corporate publications.