15 hot and novel low carbon fuel technologies to watch

April 27, 2015 |

joule-systemAn effort is underway in the UK to classify, within the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, “novel low carbon fuels” made by companies such as LanzaTech, Joule, Solar Jet, Velocys, Sunfire, Pyreco and others.

In the UK, a report prepared by E4tech and Ecofys has been released and looks at the problem of narrow definitions for low carbon fuels fuels such as “made from biomass” — which favor many technologies, but exclude some very hot ones such as LanzaTech.

The authors say that the UK can accelerate carbon emissions reductions by broadening definitions to include waste sources, that may stem from fossil sources but ultimately lead to low carbon fuels.

There are good reasons to re-examine the definitions, based not only on finding ways to include “novel low carbon fuels” but simply to embrace a better logic.

The “Origination of Carbon” quandary

For example, consider the problem of a waste gas produced from a fossil process, such as burning coal. If the CO2 is absorbed by a sugar cane plantation, wouldn’t the sugar cane be considered a renewable biomass, suitable as a low carbon feedstock? Yet the source of the CO2 is traditionally considered non-renewable.

Novel-low-carbon-fuelsWe have to consider if policies are correctly framed if they require waste CO2 to be recycled first and exclusively into biomass before they can be considered a source for a low-carbon fuel. Wouldn’t simply capturing and using that CO2 by an alternative method accomplish the same goal, but save the process step of growing a crop?

In the end, says the E4tech / Ecofys Report, “Novel Low Carbon Transport Fuels and the TFOO: sustainability implications”:

“Many of these fuels have the potential to deliver high carbon savings without using any land, thereby avoiding both direct and indirect land use change as well as impacts on food or feed prices.”

There’s some muddled thinking in that contention, of course. Common sense tells us that food and feed prices relate back to land productivity as much as land use — otherwise, how do we explain rising food and feed prices during times of drought? But we recognize that the focus here is overly-narrow definitions relating to low carbon fuels, not land use.

In the report, the authors recommend two new categories in transitioning towards a broader, low-carbon standard: low carbon fuels from non-renewable sources, such as the production of fuels from used tires, waste plastics, steel mill carbon monoxide, or stranded gas. And renewables fuels of non-biological origin.

15 Hot and Novel Low Carbon Players

Let’s look at the categories and some of the players.

Low Carbon Fuels

Cynar
Fuel: Diesel and jet fuel.
Carbon source: Waste plastics
Hydrogen source: Waste plastics
Energy source: Waste plastics
Process: Pyrolysis
Stage of development: Demonstration

Lanzatech
Fuel: Ethanol.
Carbon source: CO from steel mill off-gases
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: CO from steel mill off-gases
Process: Fermentation
Stage of development: Demonstration

PYReco
Fuel: Semi-refined diesel fuel
Carbon source: Waste tires
Hydrogen source: Waste tires
Energy source: Waste tires
Process: Pyrolysis
Stage of development: Pilot

Velocys
Fuel: Gasoline, diesel and jet.
Carbon source: MSW or flared gas.
Hydrogen source: MSW or flared gas.
Energy source: MSW or flared gas.
Process: Fischer-Tropsch
Stage of development: Demonstration.

Renewable fuels of non-biological origin

Air Fuel Synthesis
Fuel: Methanol
Carbon source: CO2 from point sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Wind power
Process: Electrolysis of H20 and catalytic synthesis
Stage of development: Lab

Algenol
Fuel: Ethanol, diesel, jet, gasoline
Carbon source: CO2 from point sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Sunlight
Process: Fuel secretion from modified algae
Stage of development: Lab

Audi e-gas
Fuel: H2 and synthetic natgas
Carbon source: CO2 from point sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Wind power
Process: Electrolysis of H2O and catalystic methanization
Stage of development: Demonstration

Carbon Recycling International
Fuel: Methanol
Carbon source: CO2 from geothermal plant
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Geothermal power
Process: Electrolysis of H2O and catalystic synthesis
Stage of development: Demonstration

ClimeWorks
Fuel: Synfuels
Carbon source: Ambient CO2
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Renewable electricity
Process: N/A
Stage of development: Lab

Dioxide Materials
Fuel: Synfuels (gasoline, diesel, jet)
Carbon source: CO2 from point sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Wind power
Process: Electrolysis of H2O and catalystic synthesis
Stage of development: Lab

ITM Power to Gas
Fuel: H2 and synthetic natgas
Carbon source: CO2 from point sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Waste plastics
Process: Electrolysis of H2O and catalystic methanization
Stage of development: Demonstration

Joule
Fuel: Diesel, ethanol, jet fuel
Carbon source: CO2 from point sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Sunlight
Process: Fermentation
Stage of development: Demonstration

Sandia National Labs
Fuel: Methanol, ethanol
Carbon source: CO2 from point or ambient sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Waste plastics
Process: C)2 to CO syngas, electrolysis
Stage of development: Lab

Solar jet
Fuel: Synfuels (jet)
Carbon source: CO2 from ambient sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Solar heat
Process: Fischer-tropsch
Stage of development: Lab

Sunfire
Fuel: Synfuels (gasoline, diesel, jet)
Carbon source: CO2 from point sources
Hydrogen source: Water
Energy source: Solar heat
Process: Electrolysis of H2O and catalystic synthesis
Stage of development: Lab

The Bottom Line

In the end, low-carbon fuels accomplish the same carbon, energy security and economic development objectives as renewable fuels made from biomass, so it’s a laudable effort underway in the UK.

We might point out that a truly low-carbon standard is going to, ultimately, have to consider fully fossil-based fuels that offer low carbon emissions. For example, vehicles based on natural gas. Generally the practice is to set a baseline standard, such as gasoline emissions in today’s vehicles — and, in low carbon fuel standards, fuel marketers are offered a “carbon budget” each year (which generally declines), and they can choose the fuels mix they want, and potentially purchase cash credits for extra carbon, with those purchased credits providing funding for increased investment in R&D for low carbon technologies.

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