Can electrofuels help to decarbonise long-distance transportation?


While electric battery technology is expected to drive road vehicles away from reliance on fossil fuels, decarbonising hard-to-electrify long-distance sectors like shipping, trucking and aviation remains a challenge. Some experts believe electrofuels – also known as efuels – could offer a way to decarbonise these forms of transportation as a carbon-neutral, drop-in replacement for traditional fuels like diesel and gasoline.

eFuels are a class of synthetic fuels that have been designed to replace conventionally produced fossil fuels. Combining green hydrogen and carbon dioxide, the eMethanol that is produced can then be converted to a wide range of sustainable fuels, including eSAF, eGasoline, and eDiesel.

Global materials and tech company, Honeywell, has recently announced the launch of their new, UOP eFining technology, a ready-now solution for producing low-carbon sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). eFuels company, HIF Global, are intending to deploy the new technology to produce eSAF at their second U.S. eFuels facility.

Honeywell’s UOP eFining is a methanol-to-jet fuel processing technology that is designed to convert eMethanol to eSAF reliably and at scale. The technology reportedly has the potential to result in high-yield eSAF production at a lower cost relative to comparable technologies, and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 88 per cent compared to conventional jet fuel.

“As a leader in renewable fuel technology, Honeywell recognises that creating technologies that use new feedstocks is vital to long-term decarbonisation of the aviation sector,” says Lucian Boldea, president and CEO of Honeywell Performance Materials and Technologies. “The ability to use readily abundant CO2 to produce SAF is a transformational opportunity for this market. Adding UOP eFining to our existing ‘Ecofining’ and ethanol-to-jet technologies, Honeywell now offers multiple routes to market to meet the rapidly growing demand for renewable fuels, including SAF.”   

“United strongly supports the development of new technologies that can help bring additional quantities of SAF to market,” comments United Airlines Ventures president, Michael Leskinen. “Using green H2 and CO2 to produce eSAF has the potential to dramatically increase the volume of SAF required to enable the aviation industry to reach its decarbonisation goals in a timelier manner. United is proud to be the first airline to use SAF in regular operations and increasing our SAF consumption is essential to meeting our commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, without relying on traditional carbon offsets.” 

HIF Global is the first customer to sign a commercial agreement for the production of eSAF using Honeywell UOP eFining. HIF expects to deploy the solution at its second commercial-scale eFuels facility in the U.S, which is set to become the world’s largest eSAF facility, recycling approximately two million tons of captured CO2 to make approximately 11,000 barrels per day of eSAF by 2030. 

“Honeywell and HIF Global together will transform recycled CO2 into a useful feedstock to replace fossil fuels in the very hard to abate aviation sector,” Renato Pereira, CEO of HIF USA, adds. “At HIF Global, we view Honeywell’s UOP eFining technology as the new frontier in sustainable aviation fuels and we look forward to deploying it to decarbonise over 12 billion air passenger miles per year.”

According to a post by the World Economic Forum from May 2022, developers needed to find a way to manufacture eFuel at scale and make sure they perform comparably to their fossil fuel counterparts to avoid them costing anywhere up to seven times as much as fossil fuels.

A lot has changed in a year. Leigh Abrams, senior business leader for emerging renewable fuels in Honeywell UOP’s sustainable technology solutions business, says that, while eFuels will continue to be challenging to produce in the short-term, the cost is now being offset be recent government legislation.

“In the United States, there are a couple of incentives that apply. The Inflation Reduction Act obviously has incentives for both clean hydrogen production as well as renewable fuel production, and in California there are number of market mechanisms supporting this transition too, which are expanding to other states as well,” explains Abrams. “In Europe too, the Refuel EU Aviation Initiative has a specific mandate for eFuels, requiring at least 35 per cent of all SAF used in European airports to be eFuels by 2050.” 

However, others remain sceptical that eFuels are a realistic solution at scale. Gianni Catalfamo, CEO of OneWedge – an Italian startup company focused on the electrification of transportation – posted his thoughts about eFuels on LinkedIn, saying: “Running thermodynamics in reverse by un-burning CO2 to make efuels might be technically possible, but it is also (and always will be) horribly expensive and wasteful compared to using directly the renewable electrical energy it starts from.

“Fuel cells, direct hydrogen burning, and eFuels are all ‘Frankenschemes’: doomed attempts to put life back into something that’s been dead already for some time.”

Naturally, Abrams disagrees. “There are absolutely conversations to be had about what the most sustainable path forward is, and in general, I think that the things that make an impact at scale are the ones that are going to move forward. Technologies that do not work will not be around for very long, because people will not invest in them if they think that they will fall by the wayside later down the line.

“From my perspective, Honeywell UOP has a lot of experience in commercialising technologies and ensuring those technologies are highly successful at having a real impact on a global scale. So, we work hard to find the technologies that we think make the most sense.

“As someone who works within the sustainable technology solutions business, if we are not making things that are sustainable, I don’t know what we are doing.”

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