Electrofuels Advance: Vattenfall, SAS, Shell, LanzaTech, US Air Force, Emerging Fuels Technology and Twelve advance on Power-to-liquids via waste CO2

November 8, 2021 |

It’s a simple idea, using renewable electricity to induce carbon dioxide and hydrogen to form a hydrocarbon. Hydrocarbons, you know, the stuff we burn as liquid fuel and from which we make plastics, fabrics, flavors, fragrances, resins, coatings, etcetera. If you are what you wear, as the New York Times once famously opined, you are the barrel of petroleum you are trying to get rid of. 

Since combusting a hydrocarbon fuel produces carbon dioxide and water, it’s been fashionable to describe these “electrofuels” as a form of “reverse combustion” and, goes the thinking, why not solve the climate problem and our thirst for mobility, at the same time? Elsewhere, electrofuels are known as a subset of PTL, which does not, as it turns out, simply stand for Praise The Lord but refers also to Power-To-Liquids. Also known as PTX, CO2 fuels, and probably someone calls them “AirHooch” when no-one from DOE is looking. 

Great idea. So, where are the gallons? 

Good news, Vattenfall, SAS, Shell and LanzaTech signed an R&D deal to investigate production of the world’s first synthetic sustainable aviation fuel using fossil free electricity, recycled carbon dioxide from district heating and the LanzaJet ATJ technology in Sweden. 

Think, initially, 15 million gallons per year. Long term, say the 2030s, think 25 percent of SAS’ entire sustainable aviation fuels buy.

Why this technology?

LanzaTech’s microbe can convert CO2 in the presence of H2 and the first commercial plant to show this, is currently being built by Indian Oil. In that specific gas stream, 50% of the C in the ethanol will come from the CO2 in the gas stream. Since there is H2 in the stream, no additional H2 is added.

Successful conversion of CO2 in single streams will require abundant, sustainable H2; either blue or green. Production of H2 is now increasingly being incentivized by governments, including the U.S. which is emphasizing the growth of the green hydrogen industry. This will significantly impact the availability and the cost of green H2. At the end of the day, building plants is what gets new technology down the cost curve so these incentives will become important. And yes, H2, and its many uses, is highly overrated but that chasing of the green H2 wave will get the green H2 tech down the cost curve so we can use it economically sooner rather than later.

Who does what?

Vattenfall will investigate fossil free electricity supply, hydrogen production and carbon dioxide recovery. Shell will investigate fuel production, logistics and be the electrofuel buyer. LanzaTech will provide its gas fermentation expertise to make ethanol from the input gas streams and parties will license the LanzaJet ATJ technology to convert the ethanol to electrofuels. SAS will participate as a potential buyer.

The technology backstory

The technology, was developed by LanzaTech and the U.S Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. A joint study has shown promising conditions for the project, and all partner companies now agree to carry out in-depth analyses. The ambition is to commission the new production facility sometime between 2026 and 2027 near Forsmark on Sweden’s east coast.

But wait, there’s 3 more projects in the LanzaTech hopper

Why have just one PtL project in the pipeline?! LanzaTech has three others, fragrantly named:

1. Project Orchid: The pilot at Freedom Pines which will focus on optimizing CO2 + H2 to ethanol.

2. Project Lotus: The small commercial project with SkyNRG which will use added H2 to convert the CO2 in a raw biogas stream to ethanol enabling conversion of the methane (via syn gas) and the CO2.

3. Project AtmosFuel: A feasibility study in partnership with Carbon Engineering to evaluate directly capturing CO2 from the air and converting it to sustainable aviation fuel.

Over at Twelve, Off We Go into the Wild Green Yonder

More news on electrofuels from Twelve.

One of these days, we’ll get used to calling the company Twelve instead of Opus-12, its former moniker. After all, the world got used to calling it 7-Eleven instead of Southland Ice. Fans of the technology will rejoice that Twelve has produced the first fossil-free jet fuel called E-Jet from carbon dioxide (CO2) electrolysis, demonstrating a scalable, energy-efficient path to the de-fossilization of global aviation. This project was supported through funding from the U.S. Air Force and produced fuel globally applicable for both commercial and military aviation.

Twelve’s jet fuel is produced using its carbon transformation technology in partnership with Emerging Fuels Technology, and is a fossil-free fuel that offers a drop-in replacement for petrochemical-based alternatives without any changes to existing plane design or commercial regulations.

Twelve’s proprietary technology extends beyond fuels, and also transforms CO2 into critical chemicals and materials that are conventionally made from fossil fuels. It can scale to fit any need and offers an energy-efficient alternative to biofuels, which require significant amounts of land and energy to produce. The process is powered by clean low-carbon electricity and is a promising route towards carbon-neutral aviation.

Creating jet fuel from CO2 enables the Air Force to increase energy independence and reduce risk in fuel logistics without compromising on fuel quality or reliability. Twelve worked in partnership with the Air Force’s Operational Energy office through a joint contract with AFWERX, a program office at the Air Force Research Laboratory, and SBIR, the Small Business Innovation Research program.

Or, as they might sing one day at the Air Force Academy:

Off we go into the wild green yonder,

Climbing high, using the sun;

Here we come, nothing is squandered,

At ‘em now, with carbon none!

Over at ETH Zurich, PTL, an e-fuels breakthrough

Researchers at ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) have developed the process technology that can produce carbon-neutral transportation fuels from sunlight and air. For the past two years, researchers led by Aldo Steinfeld, Professor of Renewable Energy Carriers at ETH Zurich, have been operating a solar mini- refinery on the roof of the Machine Laboratory in the centre of Zurich. 

Here’s an article from Nature on the work to date, in which they’ve demonstrated the stable and reliable operation of the solar mini-refinery under real on-sun conditions. They also show a way to introduce solar fuels to the market without additional carbon taxes.

Here’s a video animation explaining the process.

The solar mini-refinery on the roof of an ETH building has now been in operation for two years. How would you sum up this work? Aldo Steinfeld: We have successfully demonstrated the technical viability of the entire thermochemical process chain for converting sunlight and ambient air into drop- in transportation fuels. The overall integrated system achieves stable operation under real conditions of intermittent solar radiation and serves as a unique platform for further research and development.

How does it work? Aldo Steinfeld: This is no science fiction; it is based on pure thermodynamics. The solar refinery consists of three thermochemical conversion units integrated in series: First, the direct air capture unit, which co- extracts CO2 and H2O directly from ambient air. Second, the solar redox unit, which converts CO2 and H2O into a specific mixture of CO and H2 so- called syngas. And third, the gas- to-liquid synthesis unit, which finally converts the syngas into liquid hydrocarbons.

How was the yield? Aldo Steinfeld: To date, the highest efficiency value that we measured for the solar reactor is 5.6 percent. Although this value is a world record for solar thermochemical splitting, it is not good enough. Substantial process optimisation is still required.

How can the system be further improved to increase efficiency? Aldo Steinfeld: Heat recovery between the redox steps of the thermochemical cycle is essential because it can boost the efficiency of the solar reactor to over 20 percent. Furthermore, there is room for optimisation of the redox material structure, for example by means of 3D- printed hierarchically ordered structures for improved heat and mass transfer. We are investing major efforts in both directions, and I’m optimistic that we will soon be able to report a new record value of energy efficiency.

For the chemical process, CO2 and H2O must first be extracted from the air and fed into the system. How much energy must be invested for this? Aldo Steinfeld: The specific energy requirements per mole CO2 captured are about 15 kJ of mechanical work for vacuum pumping and 500–600 kJ of heat at 95°C depending on the air relative humidity. In principle, we can use waste heat to drive the direct air capture unit. But a huge quantity of high- temperature process heat is needed for splitting the H2O and CO2, and this is supplied by concentrated solar energy.

Scaling up to industrial scale: is this feasible? Aldo Steinfeld: Certainly. A heliostat field focusing on a solar tower can be used for scaling up. The current solar mini- refinery uses a 5 kW solar reactor, and while a 10x scale of the solar reactor has already been tested in a solar tower, an additional 20x scale is still required for a 1 MW solar reactor module. The commercial- size solar tower foresees an array of solar reactor modules and, notably, can make use of the solar concentrating infrastructure already established for commercial solar thermal power plants.

The Bottom Line

We love electrofuels, been watching them evolve from a moonshot technology just 11 years ago — and, we mean that literally, because the moonshot agency ARPA-e was fostering this technology in 2010, read about it here. First we ever heard of Ginkgo Bioworks was this program. Has their time come? Not quite yet, but they’ve come a long way, baby. And their time appears to be nigh.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“SAS and Sustainability go hand in hand. That’s why we are incredibly proud to be part of this unique project where ambitious sustainability goals and agendas come together. Our joint commitment in finding ways to enable large-scale production of a more sustainable aviation fuel is a fantastic opportunity to accelerate the commercialization of SAF, and thus SAS’s transition towards industry-leading zero-emission flights,” says Anko van der Werff, President and CEO, SAS. 

“This initiative shows the potential of cross industry partnerships to drive the decarbonization of a hard-to-abate sector. To innovate faster in order to bridge to a fossil free living within one generation. This is a really good opportunity and together we will explore further how to produce low emission electrofuel for aviation,” says Anna Borg, President and CEO, Vattenfall. 

“Sustainable aviation fuel offers the greatest potential to reduce emissions from aviation. It is only by working together today across the aviation ecosystem to drive the technologies and infrastructure needed to produce SAF at scale that the aviation sector can achieve net zero by 2050. This is why I am excited for this collaboration to explore one more pathway for SAF production,” says Anna Mascolo, President,Shell Aviation.

“The aviation sector faces incredible challenges getting the volumes of SAF needed for sustainable flight. This project is the start of delivering on these volumes and by reusing carbon dioxide and fossil free power we have an opportunity for unprecedented scale. We need to rethink carbon and together with fossil free power, harness it to create a new climate safe future for all,”says Jennifer Holmgren, CEO LanzaTech.

“Electrifying planes with batteries has proven unfeasible for at-scale decarbonization of aviation, necessitating the production of fossil-free jet fuel,” said Twelve Co-Founder and CEO Nicholas Flanders. “We’ve essentially electrified the fuel instead through our electrochemical process, and the fuel drops right into existing commercial planes, allowing operators to instantly reduce their carbon footprint without any sacrifice to operating quality. Since you can’t electrify the plane, we’ve electrified the fuel.”

“One of our main goals with this project was to create a clean jet fuel that enhances security and energy independence without sacrificing operational readiness. The successful completion of the project proves that efficiency and environmental responsibility are not mutually exclusive,” said Roberto Guerrero, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Operational Energy.

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