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Synthetic fuels

E-Fuels: a building block in the drive mix

Electromobility is gaining momentum, especially when it comes to individual transport. Despite this, it does not have to be the only drive type when it comes to the emissions-free mobility mix of the future. Synthetic fuels, i.e. E-Fuels, could also play an important role.

From 2035 onwards, General Motors wants to stop producing combustion engines, as does Renault, and Volvo wants every second car to be an e-vehicle from 2025. So is this a farewell to combustion engines across the board? Even combustion engine-powered super sports cars by the prestigious company AMG have been sent back to the test bench by the upcoming Euro 7 emissions standard, but are also acting as drivers of innovation for the mass market.

One hope for the internal combustion engine could be emissions-free synthetic fuels, so-called E-Fuels. Porsche has developed a pilot plant in China together with partners such as Siemens Energy to manufacture E-Fuels on an industrial scale. The VW subsidiary intends to take advantage of the excellent wind conditions in southern Chile to produce around 130,000 litres of climate-neutral fuel in 2022. The quantity produced will then be scaled up very quickly and by 2026, they aim to produce around 550 million litres of E-Fuels.

‘At Porsche, electromobility is of the highest priority. E-Fuels are a sensible complement to this – provided they are produced in locations around the world where there is a surplus of sustainable energy. They are an additional building block on the road to decarbonisation’, explains Porsche CEO Oliver Blume.

Renewable energies

E-Fuels are synthetic fuels produced from water and carbon dioxide using electricity. ‘That’s what the “e” stands for’, explains engineer Bastian Lehrheuer, Managing Director of the Cluster of Excellence ‘The Fuel Science Center’ at RWTH Aachen. The aim is for this electricity to come from green wind power in windy southern Chile. It will be used to extract hydrogen from water and then combined with carbon dioxide in the chemistry laboratory to produce long-chain hydrocarbons to form gaseous fuels (power-to-gas) or liquid fuels (power-to-liquid). This makes e.g. e-petrol, e-diesel or e-methane that can power conventional vehicles without issue.

The carbon dioxide for E-Fuels usually comes from the biosphere, such as the atmosphere. ‘We are also researching CO2 derived from biomass and waste materials such as wood scraps’, explains Lehrheuer. ‘And we’re currently investigating the extent to which we can use plastic waste’. More difficult and energy-intensive is the production of hydrogen from water. The electrolysis process required for this consumes a lot of energy. To obtain this from renewable sources will be difficult in industrialised western countries – but is entirely conceivable in regions such as North Africa that have a high volume of wind and solar energy or in Chile.

Reasons for E-Fuels

In spite of the large amount of energy required, there are a number of crucial reasons in favour of E-Fuels, emphasises the mechanical engineer – mainly that they can fall back on the structures that the combustion engine relies on in terms of transport, storage and use. Not only can the existing transport and storage system for crude oil continue to be used, and the petrol stations and distribution network for fossil fuels continue to operate, but the vehicle fleet will also not need to be changed. For countries in eastern Europe, for example, where the life cycle of a car is even longer than in Germany, this is of huge importance. And there is also an implicit social aspect to this too, says Lehrheuer: ‘Unlike e-cars, E-Fuels do not require any investment on the part of the end user’.

Regions with high levels of renewable energy could also benefit from synthetic fuels. In North Africa, for example, investments could be made not only in wind turbines and solar farms, but also in the production of E-Fuels as a whole. ‘This will bolster these regions and create jobs’, says Lehrheuer. And from a geopolitical standpoint, it could even help to eliminate the causes of migration.

Competition between technologies

Nevertheless, it also makes sense to use electricity produced sustainably in industrialised countries, e.g. for e-cars, emphasises the engineer. ‘This leads to greater efficiency than if I use the electricity for electrolysis to obtain hydrogen’. This is why Lehrheuer believes open-mindedness towards technology is important. ‘Western industrial countries should definitely plan for three infrastructures’. In addition to the existing network of petrol stations, this would include a charging station infrastructure for battery-driven drive systems and a hydrogen supply network for fuel cell vehicles.

This open approach to technology would then allow different modes of transport to benefit from the advantages of the different types of drive. Cars in inner-city traffic would benefit from the efficiency of e-mobility, while long distance and heavy goods vehicles would benefit from the long range of fuel cells. Many conventional vehicles would also benefit from the advantages of E-Fuels. ‘This is why policymakers should be open-minded as far as technology is concerned’, says Bastian Lehrheuer, ‘and instead of making decisions in favour of specific types of drive themselves, they should encourage competition between technologies subject to uniform sustainability criteria’.

Andreas Kuhlmann (Photo: Deutsche Energie-Agentur GmbH (dena)/Christian Schlüter)
Andreas Kuhlmann (Photo: Deutsche Energie-Agentur GmbH (dena)/Christian Schlüter)

‘If we are to take climate targets seriously, we can't do it without E-Fuels. We proved this in the dena E-Fuels study. Instead of discussing where we shouldn’t use E-Fuels, let’s focus instead on discussing how and via which sector self-sustaining market development can take place’.
Andreas Kuhlmann, Chair of the Management Board of Deutsche Energie-Agentur GmbH (dena)


Nils Aldag (Photo: Sunfire)
Nils Aldag (Photo: Sunfire)


‘We’re supplying the technology for the first commercial plant for the production of hydrogen-based renewable aviation fuel, which is scheduled to commence operation in 2023 in Norway. At Herøya industrial park, the plant can be operated particularly cost-effectively thanks to Norway’s extensive resources of renewable electricity. In order for us to be able to produce E-Fuels on an industrial scale, the only thing we're missing is a reliable regulatory framework’.
Nils Aldag, CEO and founder of Sunfire

Philipp Engelkamp
Philipp Engelkamp

‘Industrial-scale production facilities are crucial in ensuring the widespread availability of E-Fuels. With our pioneering power-to-liquid plant at Industriepark Frankfurt Höchst, we want to set new standards by producing up to 4.6 million litres of fuel every year. Further plants will follow.
Philipp Engelkamp, Managing Director INERATEC


Björn Noack
Björn Noack

‘Carbon neutral fuels are a useful complement to electromobility. This is why Bosch is committed to drop-in renewable fuels. These meet current standards and can be blended with existing fuels. This means that the many millions of existing vehicles across the world can also make their urgently needed contribution to protecting the climate. Another benefit is that no adjustments to the existing injection technology are required’.
Björn Noack, Product Manager Car Market Segment in the Bosch Powertrain Solutions division

Event series launched

Messe Frankfurt has launched an event format on alternative forms of drivers entitled ‘Energy 4 Mobility’. In March 2021, renowned experts from politics and industry spoke about low-CO2 liquid fuels. During the expert talk, Adina Vălean, EU Commissioner for Transport, explained how the EU intends to promote the use of E-Fuels in aviation and shipping. You can find out more about this event here.


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