2050 carbon-neutral targets – is there a role for synfuels?

There’s still more talk about electric vehicles than demand for them: some 200,000 vehicles in the UK are currently driven electrically – at least partly so, since most of them are so-called plug-in hybrids, as they still carry a conventional combustion engine as well.

Given there are around 35m vehicles registered in Britain, the electric revolution hasn’t fully reached either the heart or the wallet of the people. Yet. This, however, is going to change, albeit probably slowly.

Fast and fundamental changes

We know that the mobile world will also need to make some fast and fundamental changes if we are to meet the climate targets set in Paris.

The mobility of the future will therefore be connected and smart, as well as automated and electrified.

There are several projections on how many electric vehicles will be running between Thurso and Torquay in a couple of years from now, with some forecasts expecting up to 38m electric vehicles (including hybrids) by 2040.

And here exactly lies the challenge: where will the necessary power come from?

Even if we assume that the charging process becomes significantly smarter, 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.

How much more electricity will we need?

Estimates on exactly how much additional energy will be needed by 2050 differ widely, ranging from the equivalent of six nuclear power plants to an increase of a mere tenth of nowadays demand on a cold winter’s day.

The question, however, remains the same: can we tackle climate change with battery technology alone? Probably not.    

At Bosch we are investing €400m a year in electromobility – nevertheless we expect a little over three out of four new cars worldwide to still have a combustion engine on board ten years from now.

Commercial vehicles: The electric challenge

Aircraft, ships, and commercial vehicles are a whole other matter. The vision of transporting 40 metric tons of cargo over a distance of 1,000km with an electric battery remains wishful thinking for the time being.

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 an innovation that has not received much public attention so far comes in: synthetic fuels, also known as synfuels.

The first step in making synfuels is to convert water into hydrogen.

After that, the next step is to add carbon, which can be harvested from industrial processes or even from the air. The process 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.

That is because CO2, the substance primarily responsible for climate change, is reused in the production of renewable energy, turning this greenhouse gas into a raw material.

Many researchers have arrived at similar conclusions. 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, however, take a more critical view of using synthetic fuels.

Their primary concern is the high cost of production and the comparatively low level of efficiency. Both are correct. Yet they are not a reason to abandon the topic.

Scandinavia and North Africa: New roles

Today, synfuels are expensive. But they could indeed 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).

What is more, 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 hot 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 allow 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 do not have any problems with infrastructure, as we could simply continue using our current system of petrol stations.

New strategy is needed

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

Industry and policy makers therefore both need to develop a cross-sector strategy for synfuels.

Today’s cars can be easily converted to synthetic fuels, reducing CO2 emissions immediately upon launch. The UK 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 near future.   

Synfuels alone will not be capable of solving 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.

About Bosch

Robert Bosch founded the ‘Workshop for Precision Mechanics and Electrical Engineering’ in Stuttgart in 1886. This was the birth of today‘s globally operating company. 

In 1898, Bosch opened its first international office in Central London. From the very beginning, the company’s history in Britain has been characterised by innovative drive and social commitment.

Every one of the Bosch Group’s business sectors has a presence in the UK: Mobility Solutions, Consumer Goods, Energy and Building Technology and Industrial Technology.

In the UK, Bosch employs 5,100 people across 40 sites. In 2018, Bosch generated revenues in the UK of £3.3bn. The region is the second largest European market for Bosch after Germany and fourth largest in the world.

Find out more: www.bosch.co.uk

About the author

Steffen Hoffmann has been President of Robert Bosch Ltd since 1April 2015.

With 26 years of experience at Bosch, Steffen is involved in many different aspects of the Bosch business in the UK.

His position covers two main areas of responsibilities: overseeing the overall Bosch UK business as the President of Robert Bosch Ltd, and regional co-ordination of finance and administration for all Bosch entities in the UK.

Steffen studied Business Administration and Management from 1985 to 1992: first gaining a Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, followed by a Master’s Degree and then a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), both at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland.

Steffen began his career in 1992 in Germany at Robert Bosch GmbH as a management trainee and went on to hold several executive commercial roles in different countries, including Germany, Japan and South Africa.

Before taking over his current position in the UK, Steffen was the Managing Director of Robert Bosch, Southern Africa, as well as the Head of the Automotive (Original Equipment) Business in those countries, holding the positions from late 2009 until December 2014.

Steffen is married with a 19-year-old daughter. He is passionate about classic cars and a keen golfer.

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