How do we leave fossil fuels behind? What is the future of transportation? What can we do for airplanes, ships, trucks, and other commercial heavy-duty applications where we know that batteries won’t be enough?
What will the world look like in 2050, and what are the opportunities today?
Future of Transportation
A recent European Commission report offers one prediction of our future (1).
1. Oil drops significantly from 340 to 80 Mtoe (Mtoe: one million tonnes of oil equivalent). Other scenarios predict an even bigger drop. In any case, oil is not the future, even if it drops at a slower pace. It will be hard for oil to attract investment, investor interest, talent, and innovation needed to reduce costs.
2. Electricity (driven primarily by passenger cars and other smaller equipment running on clean electrons) is significantly up. Passenger cars are rapidly on the path of electrification, and this trend is not slowing down. The production of electric vehicles is easier (than ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars), the cost of ownership is lower, and the batteries needed to power these cars are improving. There are still some problems, including the cost of the vehicle, model availability, range and weather issues, and, most importantly, getting the overall charging and grid infrastructure required, especially in countries that cannot afford it. We also need to keep in mind that passenger cars will be as clean as the grid.
3. We will need hydrogen. The reason is simple: energy density. A car can run for 100 kilometers using 100 kg of batteries or 1 kg of hydrogen. While a passenger car will probably still use batteries (for the reasons explained above), trucks, trains, buses, forklifts, and other heavy-duty equipment will see significant benefits from hydrogen. Even if we expect batteries to double in power density, there are still nowhere close to covering heavy-duty applications and vehicles. Fuel cells running on pure hydrogen with zero GHG emissions or pollutants will replace combustion engines and complement batteries in hybrid applications.
Clean liquid fuels (eFuels)
4. And we will need clean liquid fuels. Many of these are equivalent to liquid carriers of hydrogen. While this is an area that has not drawn the publicity of the previous three, my prediction is that this is the next major wave in clean energy. The hydrogen infrastructure challenge is the reason we will need clean liquid fuels (eFuels).
The Hydrogen Infrastructure Challenge
There are two problems currently with hydrogen: the cost of production and the cost of infrastructure.
The production cost will drop as the costs of renewable energy, electrolysis (green hydrogen), and carbon capture (blue hydrogen) decrease over time.
Moreover, hydrogen is ideal for storing excess wind and solar renewable energy that would otherwise be lost; and we need the storage (Power to X) if we are to decarbonize fully.
The second problem is that hydrogen needs a whole new infrastructure of shipping, delivery, and dispensing. The costs and the efficiency losses across this process are significant (3),(4). It requires specialty carbon fiber tanks, compression at 350 bar or 700 bar, and specialty hydrogen refill stations, each costing millions of dollars. Hydrogen fuel cells are getting better, more reliable, and cheaper, but the hydrogen infrastructure is not there yet. Most leading hydrogen fuel cell companies have focused recently on buses, trains, trucks, forklifts, and some marine applications for the simple reason that such applications can be served with centralized refilling hydrogen infrastructure.
eFuels come in a variety of names and flavors: eMethanol, ammonia, ethanol, biofuels, biogas, synthetic fuels. The most promising are eFuels made from combining hydrogen with CO2, which achieves a zero-carbon footprint.
Essentially, most eFuels are carriers of hydrogen in liquid form. And this makes a massive difference in infrastructure requirements.
Take 1kg of hydrogen, add 7kg of CO2, and you have 5kg of eMethanol, a non-toxic, non-polluting, zero-carbon (well to wheel) sustainable fuel that you can pump at any gas station.
Given that hydrogen will be made from electrolysis using solar or wind power, the appropriate name for these fuels is Liquid Sun or Liquid Wind.
Multiple plants around the world are already producing these green fuels (7). According to different sources, the cost varies from €600 to €700 per ton, which will drop as the cost of electrolysis drops. We can expect that innovation, volume, and strategic investments, together with government policies, can bring the cost to where it needs to be competitive.
I envision the gas station of the future having three pumps:
SUN, WIND, EARTH, which all deliver carbon-neutral liquid fuels.
SUN and WIND will be produced by electrolysis (this is the hydrogen economy, not a competitor), and EARTH will be biofuels.
The benefits of eFuels
There are multiple benefits of eFuels:
1. eFuels can leverage our existing fossil fuel infrastructure for transportation, delivery, and dispensing. Gas stations, oil tankers, and trucks can be retrofitted to carry eFuels. It takes an investment of about $40K to $50K to retrofit a gas station for Liquid SUN/WIND vs. $1.5-2.0 million to build a hydrogen gas station. Moreover, for safety reasons, we also cannot build a hydrogen station next to a fuel station.
2. eFuels can be blended even with gasoline to burn clean and with lower pollutants and carbon footprint in today’s vehicles.
3. Using eFuels to power a fuel cell is much more straightforward than dealing with CFRP tanks in trucks, aviation, shipping, and other applications. The cost of shipping 1kg of hydrogen from Saudi Arabia to Japan is currently $15/kg, and even in 2030, it is expected to be $1.7 per kg.
4. Finally, looking beyond transportation, eFuels is the only viable solution for the markets of aviation and off-grid power.
eFuels can deliver hydrogen across the world at 1% of the cost of creating a hydrogen infrastructure from the ground up. The following is an extrapolation of total infrastructure cost based on a study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2).
In a recent article by Bill Gates (5), he also points to the need for electrofuels. Porsche and ENEL also extolled on these benefits in separate commentaries (6).
And the Winner Is:
The challenge of electrification is immense. The markets of energy, fuels, and transportation are worth multiple trillion dollars per year, and there is no silver-bullet solution.
While the Western world has a mandate to fix the climate change issue, the developing world has to worry about growth, survival, and feeding its population. Pollution is a bigger problem than is GHG emissions for countries like China and India, with oil dependency being an even bigger issue. Geopolitical, energy security, and economic growth issues will play as significant a role as the recent Paris climate change agreement.
All these forces compete with each other, but they have to be aligned.
Which technology, batteries, hydrogen, or eFuels, will be the winner?
Everyone will be a Winner: 1+1 = 3
As the first picture of the article and the European Commission indicates, everyone will be a winner (with the exception of fossil fuels) if we decarbonize. Batteries charging from a renewable energy grid are ideal for specific applications, zero-emissions hydrogen at central refill points will make sense for buses or trains, and eFuels will be needed for a variety of off-grid, aviation, and other transportation applications.
It might be more beneficial to consider the synergies, rather than the conflicts, worth trillions of dollars, and leverage them for the future.
Here are some of the most significant synergies:
Hydrogen + eFuels will both be produced from Green Hydrogen.
Whether the final form of dispensing is gas or liquid is mostly irrelevant to production. We will need cost-efficient electrolysis at an unprecedented size.
eFuels + Oil share the same infrastructure, the one we already have.
eFuels can leverage the existing oil delivery infrastructure (trucks, tankers, gas stations) with minor modifications
Batteries + Fuel Cells do not compete
Imagine a truck that needs 100s of kWh of batteries to run for 4-6 hours. Instead, it can use an 80kW fuel cell and a 50kWh battery. This achieves the best of both worlds: Fast startup from the battery, range, and instant refill from the fuel cell. If we could refill at a gas station with Liquid Sun/Wind, there is no reason for not having only electric cars asap without waiting for the grid and recharge infrastructure. If we used the technologies together, each one of them would see demand skyrocket.
All of the above technologies are parallel tracks to the same exciting future.
Tomorrow is today.
Commercial transport investments have a significantly longer time horizon, with equipment being able to last for decades. Therefore, we must design the solutions of tomorrow today. Developing the right energy infrastructure (generation, transportation, storage, and dispensing) must precede vehicle fleet deployment. In short, we might already be too late. The issue is urgent, and so is the business opportunity.
By Dr. Chris Kaskavelis, Chief Marketing Officer, Advent Technologies
Advent Technologies (https://www.advent.energy) develops next-generation fuel cell technology that can convert hydrogen or eFuels to electricity. Advent fuel cells operate with high temperature (ht-pem) technology that allows eFuels and methanol to be reformed in the vehicle to low-grade hydrogen. Advent’s fuel cells have applications in the automotive, aviation, and off-grid power markets. Our motto is: “Any fuel. Anywhere.”
(1) Analysis by the European Commission in the 393-page report “A Clean Planet for all A European long-term strategic vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy” using the PRIMES-GAINS-GLOBIOM/FORECAST Model. Scenario Combo (resulting in 90% decarbonization by 2050, is shown in this article (chosen as a mid-case). The model includes all sectors and all CO2, not just energy combustion emissions. Figure 57 pg. 131 data used for this article. I used the COMBO scenario as the most appropriate mid-scenario.
(2) Powering the Future with Liquid Sunshine, Joule, Volume 2, Issue 10, 17 October 2018, Pages 1925-1949
(3) Path to Hydrogen Competitiveness: A Cost Perspective Jan. 20, 2020 (The Hydrogen Council, McKinsey, E4Tech), page 26
Path to Hydrogen Competitiveness: A Cost Perspective
(4) Fueling the Future of Mobility Hydrogen and fuel cell solutions for transportation Volume 1 Deloitte China, Figure 80, page 68
(5) Bill Gates Notes: How do we move around in a zero-carbon world? PLANES, TRAINS, & ELECTRIC AUTOMOBILES
(6) Porsche puts green hydrogen in LatAm fast-lane with Enel and Siemens Energy
(7) The Methanol Institute Renewable Methanol Report