Comment: could synfuels help us meet our 2050 targets?

Dr Steffen Hoffmann, President, Bosch UK & Ireland asks whether synthetic fuels, aka synfuels, have a role to play in meeting the UK’s CO2 emissions reduction targets

Currently, 200,000 vehicles in the UK have some form of electrification in the powertrain.

Given there are around 35 million vehicles registered in Britain, the electric revolution clearly hasn’t fully reached either the heart or the wallet of the people. Yet, it seems likely this will change, albeit slowly.

There are several projections on how many electric vehicles will be running between Tobermory and Torquay by 2040, with some forecasts expecting up to 38 million electric vehicles (including hybrids).

And herein lies the challenge: where will the power come from?

Even if we assume that the charging process becomes significantly quicker, and even if we assume that mobility as a whole develops towards a highly automated and more efficient scenario, we will most probably be facing a higher demand for electricity. Estimates on exactly how much additional energy will be needed by 2050 go as far as the equivalent of six nuclear power plants.

This begs another question: can we tackle climate change with battery technology alone? Probably not.

At Bosch we are investing some 400 million euros a year in electromobility. Nevertheless we still expect around 80% of new cars worldwide to still have a combustion engine on board in 2030. (Aircraft, ships, and commercial vehicles are a whole other matter; the idea of transporting heavy cargo ships over long distances with an electric battery remains wishful thinking).

If we want to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, then we need to work on all the technologies available to us, including battery technology and fuel cells, but we should also work on further improving the combustion engine. This is where synthetic fuels, aka synfuels, come in.

Today’s cars can be easily converted to synthetic fuels, reducing CO2 emissions instantly upon launch

The process (converting water into hydrogen and then adding carbon) is still expensive and complex, mainly because it requires a great deal of electricity. But the fuels themselves are climate neutral if the electricity is generated from renewables, such as solar or wind power.

Many researchers agree; according to the Energy Policy Research Group at the University of Cambridge, “Carbon-neutral synthetic fuels … could offer sustainable alternatives to petroleum distillates that currently dominate the transportation sector and address the challenge of decarbonising the fuel mix.” And in an expert report, dena, the German Energy Agency, found that “we need fuels from renewable sources to meet the EU’s climate goals for the transport sector.”

Other experts take a more critical view, concerned by the high cost of production and the comparatively low level of efficiency. Both are correct, but not reasons to abandon the topic.

Today synfuels are expensive, but they could complement electromobility if we succeed in producing them mainly where massive quantities of renewable energies are available, such as Scandinavia (wind and water) or North Africa (sun).

Moreover, the low level of efficiency becomes less relevant once enough green electricity is available to produce synfuels – something that could also offer a whole new world of opportunities for hotter countries or for those that are currently highly dependent on oil.

There are other advantages too: synfuels are inexpensive to transport over long distances; cars are relatively easy to convert to synthetic fuel usage; they contribute to energy stability as they are capable of storing at least a portion of the sustainably generated energy. And we could simply continue using our current system of petrol stations.

Despite all these advantages, there have only been a few experimental prototypes and pilot projects so far.

Industry and policy makers therefore need to develop a cross-sector strategy for synfuels. Today’s cars can be easily converted to synthetic fuels, reducing CO2 emissions instantly upon launch. The United Kingdom has promised to go climate neutral by 2050 at the latest. All remaining CO2 emissions would need to be fully compensated for by then. Synthetic fuels could be a powerful tool for achieving that goal in the nearer future.

Synfuels alone will not solve the climate problem. But they have the potential to make an important contribution in the fight against global warming. In the interest of our climate, we need to take an unbiased, closer look at every technological solution – even those that still appear far-fetched to us today.