VTT, Neste et al in search for e-fuels breakthrough

February 15, 2021 |

In Finland, a partnership led by VTT and Neste aimed at using sustainable electricity and sequestered carbon dioxide to make fuels received €3.3M (about $4 million USD) in funding from Business Finland. Altogether, EUR 6 million (about $7.2 million USD) is invested in the development of the production of fuels in Finland.

The e-fuels backstory

Elsewhere, it has been called power-to-X technology or power-to-liquids — and in some ways, it is closely related to the production of green hydrogen, which is accomplished by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis.

What’s different here? Beyond standard room-temperature electrolysis, there’s high-temperature electrolysis, which uses heat as well as power. That’s a higher-efficiency process — also, it can tap into waste heat as a source, often available in industrial settings. It’s not well known, for example, that you can split water at 2500 degrees (a temperature associated with plasma gasification) without using any electricity at all. Most high-temperature electrolysis technologies stay well south of that temperature level, focusing in around the 700 degree level.

That’s what’s happening here.

Here, the aim is to produce a mixed gas of hydrogen and carbon monoxide required in Fischer-Tropsch synthesis by feeding carbon dioxide and water vapor directly into an electrolyser operating at a temperature of about 700°C. This E-fuel project aims at an efficiency improvement by 10-15 percentage points compared to the efficiency of current technologies in the production of e-fuels not only via high-temp electrolysis — but, also, heat integration of electrolysis, carbon dioxide sequestration and fuel synthesis.

In all, you have several operating processes here. There’s a solid oxide electrolyzer cell, carbon dioxide sequestration and Fischer-Tropsch fuel synthesis. The two-year E-fuel research project aims at developing integration of hydrogen production through high-temperature electrolysis, and jumping Finland to the front of the line in terms of e-fuels.

The market drivers

Global emissions from transportation sector currently cover about 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The market for synthetic fuels that has emerged in the wake of an acute need to reduce emissions is expected to grow to millions of tons by 2030 in Europe alone. The market for electrolysis technology, which is a key to the production of synthetic fuels, is expected to grow more than 20-fold in the coming five years. The production of e-fuels is often referred to by the names power-to-liquids (PtL) or power-to-X (PtX).

Why not just make hydrogen?

There are some limitations on the use of hydrogen as a fuel technology, and the importance of those will depend on whether you focus in on creature comfort or hard economics.

If you’re a Motel 6 kind of person, no frills, just give it to me, hydrogen’s tough as a transport fuel when you compare it to battery electric vehicles.

Stanford’s William Mook says it takes 41.4 KwH to make a kilo of hydrogen, while former Los Alamos scientist Steve Hench puts it closer to 50 KwH. Bottom line, hydrogen gives you about 70 miles a kilo and thereby you get about 30.9 miles per dollar, based on 5-cent solar and about a half-cent for the water. That excludes the cost of conversion, the vehicle and so forth – just the feedstock cost. Over on the other side, you get about 30 KwH per 100 miles with battery-electric vehicles these days, and with that same 5-cent solar you get about 62 miles to the dollar. You can see why the no-frills crowd likes electricity and why Elon Musk refers to fuel cells as “fool cells”.

But, not everyone is into no-frills, Motel 6, serve-yourself, convenience is a factor, just ask your friends at McDonalds, 7-Eleven, and so forth. First, you lose about 40 miles to the dollar, standing around waiting for re-charges, if you are the average US electric car buyer. So, for the high-end crowd, unless you are fast-charging or charging your car at home or when otherwise occupied doing something else, hydrogen makes more sense. 

A survey taken in 2017 of auto executives by KPMG “found they believe hydrogen fuel cells have a better long-term future than electric cars and will represent “the real breakthrough” (78 percent), with the auto executives citing the short refueling time of just a few minutes as a major advantage. Sixty-two percent told KPMG that infrastructure challenges will result in the battery-powered electric vehicle market’s undoing.”

So, why not hydrogen? First, the cars are expensive, think 50,000+ for now. And, there’s hardly any re-fueling available, at present, anywhere.

So, that’s why hydrocarbons made as e-fuels still get focus. For one, they fit into the existing vehicles and infrastructure. Second, they are carbon-negative.

What would ever solve the hydrogen transport dilemma?

Our view? Creating a hydrogen pipeline system sounds daunting, expensive, and far-off. So, making hydrogen at far-off super-facilities and delivering it to hundreds of thousands of re-fueling points sounds like a tough bridge to cross. What we prefer is distributed hydrogen production — “mill ‘em where you fill ‘em” more or less. After all, we’re splitting water and every potential re-fueling point has water supply. So, distribute the water, split and fill. That’s a technology that does not exist today, and we wonder why that is.

The partners

Company partners who have their own research projects include Andritz, Convion, Elcogen and Neste. Neste’s project is linked with the Veturi Ecosystem for new solutions for reducing the use of crude oil. Neste’s globally expertise in the production and distribution of liquid fuels based on renewable raw materials offers a commercial path for solutions that can be developed in the E-fuel project.

Of the project partners, Convion is developing industrial-scale high temperature electrolysis in its own parallel project. Convion’s competence in fuel cell technology also provides an excellent foundation for the development and commercialization of an electrolyser suitable for the production of hydrogen. In its products Convion utilizes SOC fuel cells manufactured in Finland by Elcogen, which are world-leaders in efficiency. The technology developed in the project and its integration will be tested in cooperation with the other project partners, Neste and VTT.

Other company partners in the E-fuel research project are AW-Energy, Helen, Carbon ReUse Finland, Kleener Power Solutions, Agco Power, ESL Shipping, Meriaura Group, ABB, and Ineratec. The consortium covers all parties in the value chain from sequestration of gases to electricity and fuel production, logistics, as well as users of the transport fuels in off-road and marine transport.

The VTT e-fuels backstory

VTT’s E-fuel is a research project funded jointly by Business Finland, VTT, and the participating company partners, with the goal of establishing readiness for scaling up the technology being developed to a production scale level after the project. The project is public, and a part of the Green E2 ecosystem funded by Business Finland and administered by Clic Innovation, and continuation for VTT’s power-to-X research, for example the BECCU project launched in 2020. E-fuel project is also linked into Green Electrification 2035-Veturi program initiated by ABB.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“The E-fuel project is a continuation of VTT’s persevering work in developing together with our partners clean transportation fuel solutions and technologies for the utilization of carbon dioxide and electricity in the production of chemical products such as fuels and chemicals”, says VTT Research Professor Juha Lehtonen.

“The E-fuel project is the first collaboration project linked with Neste’s Veturi research program. In this program, Neste is developing new, globally scalable solutions to reduce the use of crude oil in the production of transport fuels and chemicals, and thereby to mitigate climate change. Commercializing these technologies requires long-term research as well as the creation of new value chains together with partners”, says Outi Ervasti, Vice President, Renewable Hydrogen and PtX at Neste. “In the E-fuel project, several Finnish companies will collaborate to further develop the technologies needed for synthetic fuel production. This project supports us in reaching our goals of becoming carbon neutral in our production by 2035 and in developing an offering of synthetic fuels based on captured CO2 and renewable hydrogen”, Ervasti states.

“Finland has a good opportunity to establish a strong position on the Power to X market. We have every possibility to create strong value chains on a foundation of deep technological expertise. This involves creating cooperative networks among technology companies, large enterprises, and research institutes. I believe that this project will help us in developing the Finnish Power-to-X companies towards international leadership”, says Erkko Fontell, CEO of Convion.

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