E-fuels powering a climate-neutral future

Posted on January 25, 2022 by Lucie Maluck, Images by Rolls-Royce Power Systems

With e-fuels produced from green electricity, electricity generation and drive-power technology stands a good chance of going net-zero.
To stop global warming and meet the goals set out in the Paris Climate Accord, power delivery systems and energy systems will have to become carbon-neutral. Fuels are one of the key levers we have. With e-fuels produced from green electricity, electricity generation and drive-power technology stands a good chance of going net-zero.

By 2050, Europe, the USA and other countries want to be climate-neutral. China wants to be ready by 2060 at the latest. This demands a technology rethink not just on power delivery but also on new fuels. No matter how clean fossil fuel combustion engines may be, they will always emit CO2. E-fuels such as e-hydrogen, e-methane, e-methanol or e-diesel – produced from green electricity and carbon from the air with some subsequent processing – are now opening up a new path into the future. The demand for e-fuels is huge, with 20,000 terawatt-hours of fuel-based energy needed in 2050 according to an analysis undertaken by Rolls-Royce Power Systems. In diesel terms, this equates to two trillion liters.  

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Power-to-X: electricity turned into fuel

These new fuels are produced in a process known as Power-to-X. It works like this: Electricity produced from renewables such as wind or solar power is used to break water down into its components (hydrogen and oxygen) by a process of electrolysis. The hydrogen can be then used without further ado in a hydrogen engine, aircraft turbine or fuel cell. However, its relatively low energy density means it needs a lot of tank space and is anything but easy to store and transport. Other fuels that can be produced from hydrogen have higher energy density and are easier to store. By applying more energy and adding carbon (either air-borne carbon or from biomass), it is possible to produce other synthetic fuels such as e-hydrogen, e-methane or e-diesel. This is how electricity is turned into fuel. It can be burned carbon-neutrally, as no extra CO2 is produced.

Other synthetic options are methanol and ammonia, the latter requiring no CO2 during synthesis. However, combustion engines have to be modified to run on synthetic fuels.

What are set to be the key fuels of tomorrow?

The big question now facing experts at Rolls-Royce is which fuel is set to be the most economical and most energy-efficient. “When producing methane, methanol or kerosene from hydrogen, you have to apply additional energy and add CO2,” explained Daniel Chatterjee, Director of Technology Management & Regulatory Affairs at Rolls-Royce Power Systems.  "But methanol in particular has a lot of potential as a marine fuel, which is why we are working intensively on methanol technology for combustion engines and fuel cells," he adds. Ammonia could also be an important fuel, especially in shipping. However, safety and infrastructure issues would first have to be resolved.

The whole scenario is different for stationary engines used in power generation. For example, existing natural gas grids can be used to transport e-methane, and it is possible to produce e-hydrogen locally.  

“I'm assuming we're going to see various different fuels in future, without any one of them becoming a panacea,” summed up Chatterjee, adding, "which fuel these are is determined in no small part by availability."  

New fuels need new drive-power tech

Because new products are needed to convert these new fuels into propulsion and energy. Rolls-Royce Power Systems is working intensively on fuel cells and hydrogen and methanol engines. As part of the MethQuest project, Rolls-Royce Power Systems engineers are currently testing hydrogen engine technology on a single-cylinder test bench. If the tests continue to be as promising as they have been to date, a full engine is to be tested on the test bench before the end of 2022.

The next steps are also on the horizon for the fuel cell. At the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Rolls-Royce Power Systems unveiled its new mtu fuel cell system for a future CO2-free energy supply in October 2021. The scalable, integrated complete solutions for reliable power supply in the megawatt range will be used in series production from 2025.  

Political support needed

To meet all future e-fuel needs, large Power-to-X plants will be necessary. However, indications are that distributed, smaller plants for synthesizing electricity into e-fuels are also a feasible, attractive option. “That's where I can definitely see a market for Rolls-Royce Power Systems,” said Chatterjee. However, he also points to one essential requirement for these new fuels to succeed: political muscle. Without it, these fuels are not going to be economical in the foreseeable future. “If political decision-makers want to achieve the climate targets they've set themselves, they're going to have to build the overall framework and really get behind these fuels. That's the only way to achieve the goal of powering ships, trains, heavy goods vehicles and power plants climate-neutrally by 2050 – or even sooner,” he concluded.

Find out more in our Webinar video "The maritime energy transition – Power-to-X as a key element for green shipping".

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