In personal and urban mobility, many initiatives are emerging to reduce vehicle emissions, which are mainly committed to electricity as an alternative energy source. However, at the moment it does not seem close in time nor does it seem feasible to move a fruit and vegetable truck from southern Spain to Germany with only batteries. And, much less, other types of large transport such as airplanes that make transatlantic flights or freighters that transport thousands of containers from one end of the world to another.
According to the European Environment Agency, EU aviation and international maritime transport emissions accounted for 3.4% and 3.7%, respectively, of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. It is estimated that in the world more than 1,300 million vehicles are powered by conventional internal combustion engines. To this should be added almost 22,000 airplanes and 50,000 ships for which electrification is not an alternative.
One of the options to make heavy transport more sustainable is the use of liquid fuels with a low carbon footprint or eco-fuels, which the European Union’s Green Deal considers one of the key technologies to meet its goal of reducing 90% net emissions from transport in 2050. Among them, synthetic fuels, also known as ‘e-fuels’, stand out.
Captured CO2 and renewable hydrogen are used as raw materials to manufacture them. The latter is obtained using wind or photovoltaic energy to separate oxygen and hydrogen from water, in a process known as electrolysis. In this way, synthetic fuels are sustainable in two ways: first, because they are produced from renewable electricity and, second, because during their use they only release the amount of CO2 that has been captured before for production. They can therefore be considered as fuels with net zero emissions.
No changes to the engines
But the main advantage of these synthetic fuels is that they are compatible with current combustion engines, so they could be used to reduce CO2 emissions not only from trucks, ships and airplanes, but also from cars. In this case, ‘e-fuels’ and other solutions, such as advanced biofuels, can serve as a complement to electrification while the renewal of the car fleet takes place and all the necessary charging infrastructures are developed.
As Dolores Cárdenas, Energy Transition and Mobility consultant at Repsol Technology Lab explains, “synthetic fuels are chemically the same as gasoline, diesel or aviation kerosene, so we can use them in current engines without the need to make any modifications . They could be used now, taking advantage of the infrastructures that we use right now to distribute traditional fuels ».
The ‘e-fuels’ will be a solution for vehicles and means of transport in the coming decades and Spain can play a key role in their production. Those areas with a lot of sun and wind have the potential to produce large volumes of renewable energy and are therefore particularly favorable locations for producing renewable hydrogen and its derivatives.
The first Spanish project to produce synthetic fuels takes place in Bilbao, where Repsol is building one of the largest plants in the world for its specialty. It will use as raw material renewable hydrogen generated by electrolysis and CO2 captured in the nearby Petronor refinery, one of the few in Europe that integrates processes for the capture and use of this gas.
“Spain is in a privileged position to lead the decarbonisation of mobility. Due to its geographical location and technological capacity, it can produce all those new energies that we are considering for mobility, such as synthetic fuels, biofuels produced from waste, electricity or renewable hydrogen, ”says Dolores Cárdenas. It is therefore convinced that this new sustainable industry can find an “ideal location” in the country.
Advanced biofuels, energy from waste
The European Union has long been promoting the development of new types of low carbon footprint liquid fuels, aware that, together with electrification, they constitute one of the main options for reducing CO2 emissions from mobility. Synthetic fuels stand out among them, as well as a new generation of advanced biofuels.
These advanced biofuels can be manufactured from waste of biological origin, which can come from agriculture, the agri-food industry, forest cleaning and maintenance work and, above all, from the organic part of urban solid waste. Its use allows reducing the CO2 emissions of a vehicle above 65% in all cases and can even be zero net emissions.
Like synthetic fuels, they are compatible with current heat engines without the need for any modifications, so they can be used normally in cars, trucks, airplanes and boats. The first advanced biofuels plant in Spain will be operational in 2023 at Repsol’s refinery in Cartagena. From different types of waste, it will produce 250,000 tons per year of hydrobiodiesel, biojet, bionaphtha and biopropane; it will reduce 900,000 tons of CO2 per year.
In addition, advanced biofuels can give a boost to the circular economy. According to the National Association of Biofuels and Renewable Fuels Manufacturers (Afabior), they can help prevent 30% of waste from ending up in landfills. As Dolores Cárdenas explains, “with the use of waste as a raw material to make biofuels an important problem is eliminated, since these do not have to go to the landfill; they can be converted into something useful for society and continue to move towards the circular economy ”.
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