Synthetic and renewable fuels are likely to be able to answer both climate change and air pollution concerns, to a greater or lesser extent.
Which gases are best to use for which purpose ? Gases good for combustion release a lot of heat when oxidised. Gases good for trade by liquefaction have boiling points closer to 0° C than further away from it. Simple covalently-bound molecules are most appropriate for reactor chemistry – where transformational reactions are fostered.
Which liquids are best for which application ? Liquids for cleaner combustion are likely to be oxygenate – have oxygen in their formula; and when their thermochemical properties suit the engines they are to be burned in.
Here is a first pass at summarising some of the molecules being investigated – molecules that can be synthesised from basic input chemical feedstocks.
Table : A Selection of Compounds in Industrial Gas and Fuels Chemistry
Note : STP = Standard Temperature and Pressure (20° C to 25° C, at 1 atmosphere of pressure).
Note : DME is here used for Dimethyl ether, and not Dimethoxyethane.
Note : Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ethers are also known as PODE, Polyoxymethylene dimethyl ethers; POMDME or OMDME.
Previously, I have been considering what groups of economic actors in what sectors could be influential in calling for the development of Renewable Gas – low net carbon emissions gases, used as energy fuels and chemical feedstocks, thermochemically or biologically synthesised from renewable electricity, water and biomass :-
I need to go back a little bit to add some extra thoughts, so these will be paragraphs marked with “Continued”.
1. The World of Chemical Engineering (Continued)
One key sector in the universe of molecule management is plastics, which are now so essential in trade, commerce and manufacturing. That there is so much ethane coming on-stream from the United States hydraulic fracturing oil rush in the form of high levels of NGLs (Natural Gas Liquids) is good news for petrochemical firms big in polymers. Yet, this bounty is unlikely to continue, so what should happen when fracking uncertainties start to mount ?
Will Big Chemistry start to ask for Renewable Gas ? And will they ask for Renewable Gas from themselves ? This would make sense, as the petrochemical industry will have need of a range of light organic and inorganic molecules, even if these are not being supplied as by-products from the mining and refining of fossil fuels.
Petrochemical plants need to to be able to ride changes in the composition of a barrel of oil, and the “balance of plant” in oil refineries. Here, there would be a huge sink for any Renewable Hydrogen that could be made by any sector. Hydrogen is necessary to synthesise a range of chemistry, for example the production of agricultural chemicals, such as ammonia. If the source of much of the world’s hydrogen continues to be fossil fuels, for example, through the gasification of coals and the steam reforming of the methane from Natural Gas, then Big Chemistry will live with increasing uncertainties about the guarantees of supply.
The agricultural sector could step in themselves and ask for Renewable Gas to underpin their supplies of fertiliser, pesticides and other chemicals feeding the world.
It is anticipated to take a considerable amount of time to replace the current global fleet of internal combustion engine drive (ICE) vehicles, whether car (automobile), light duty vans or heavy duty, heavy goods vehicle trucks/lorries.
Vehicle manufacturing companies have divergent strategies. Many of them have launched electric-only ranges. Some of those serving the freight/haulage markets have brought out gas drive options, intended to be run on CNG, Compressed Natural Gas; in advance of electric models, perhaps because of concerns about power-to-weight ratios, or levels of confidence in batteries. Some automakers have brought out hydrogen fuel cells models, but this only makes sense where there is hydrogen distribution network for fuelling stations. By contrast, power and Natural Gas are distributed widely.
There is a lot of advertising for electric or electric-hybrid vehicles, but this will only impact on the sales of new vehicles – a vast majority of the global “fleet” will remain fuelled by liquids. Whilst sales of electric models pick up, companies will still be selling new ICE cars, vans and so on. As demand for electric models rises, there will likely be situations where production and supply cannot keep up. These imbalances will lead to stress in highly competitive markets.
This dynamic could make the car companies seek to create a levelising factor, to gain back control of sales densities by appealing to oil refiners to bring the net carbon in fuels down. Then customers could have the option to buy combustion engine models, but use “alternative”, “advanced” fuels, which have far lower net carbon emissions.
From the point of view of the economists, this would be preferable : vehicles running on new low carbon fuels would be tested in the market, competing against models driven on electric drive (and hybridised). And in addition, hybrids could use the new fuels too, and become 100% low carbon.
Running two streams of low-to-zero carbon energy to vehicles will also help to document the relative efficiency of power versus low carbon liquid fuels in the whole system.
The theoretical well-to-wheels energy efficiency of electric drive vehicles is significantly better than liquid fuels combustion drive vehicles; however, there is a need to buffer the electricity – running power to filling stations is not optimal. The energy from the electricity should be stored first, awaiting filling demand.
Synthesised gas could act as the buffer to power. This low carbon gas would be stored centrally, and as required, run to the filling stations by pipeline network. Because the gas is packed in the line, it will not be wasted. Fuel cells at the filling stations would convert the gas back to power, as and when needed.
Whilst low mileage/kilometrage electric vehicles might be the right answer for urban environments, particularly from the point of view of air quality, the question of freight – the haulage of food, resources and goods – is one that may be answered by gas drive vehicles rather than electric vehicles. Having a tankable fuel eliminates range anxiety, and means that heavy batteries do not need to be carried along with the merchandise. Any light duty vehicle too that needs to run long distances might be better propelled by liquid or gas fuels – another possible market for Renewable Gas and the liquid fuels that can be synthesised from it.
Besides the carmakers, and the light and heavy goods vehicle manufacturers, the road hauliers as trade bodies might put up the ask for Renewable Gas in the form of Renewable Fuels; traditionally there have been strong trade associations between fuel refiners, fuel distributors, filling station networks and those who run haulage.
11. The Fossil Oil and Gas Producers
Strange as it may sound, the companies that produce crude petroleum oil and Natural Gas might themselves start to call for Renewable Gas. This would partly be because they are strongly vertically integrated enterprises, with refineries and they also often do distribution of fuels for sale.
Key oil majors have for some time been strategising about becoming gas majors – focussing their business plans on gas instead of oil. If it is true, that Peak Demand for Oil has been reached, oil majors, now gas majors, might begin to consider what would happen when there is a Peak in Demand for Gas, too; if consumers started to desert fossil hydrocarbons and head towards Renewable Electricity for their energy.
The ex-oil, now-gas majors would therefore need to have a plan to keep up their levels of income, and keep their shareholders happy. A good way to do that would be to enter into the field of providing energy services, and making and providing low carbon electricity – some companies such as Shell have been very overt about doing this.
If these companies go the next logical step and also get into energy storage, the wheel will have come full circle, as power storage is perhaps best as synthetic gas production and storage.
And so, Renewable Gas would be a strategy for ex-oil, now-gas majors to keep from contracting, to keep up sales of energy, whilst dropping the carbon from it.
Ordinary citizens, even shareholders, have little agency when asking for change in energy systems. Oh yes, we can turn down the thermostat, and buy green gas, but we cannot prevent the sales and operation of millions of internal combustion engine vehicles, moving people and goods in a never-ending bonfire of fossil fuels.
Table : A Selection of “Green” Gas Energy Suppliers
ClimateCare “100% carbon offset gas”; purchase of “Emissions Reductions”
To engineer an Energy Change commensurate with Climate Change, the larger players in society and the economy need to ask for it, and they need to know what precisely to ask for. Should they ask for more nuclear power, it were a long, expensive time coming and clearing up from be. Should they seek Carbon Capture and Storage, or even Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage, it were sub-sectoral, slow, inefficient and hard to implement be.
In the realm of advertising, the promotion of electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles has become ubiquitous. For the car-owning, car-proud, car-dependent population, this is a significant shift in the universal private car culture propaganda. Car advertisements are everywhere in car-ful societies, and copious, so this influence should not be dismissed.
However much this affects the desire to make the next car purchase electric or hybrid, it doesn’t change the basic arithmetic : higher demand cannot easily be met, because it involves a fundamental change in investment by the car manufacturers : they cannot run two factories in parallel place of one, so they need to make decisions about whether to go electric/hybrid or stay fossil.
Some car companies have made statements that they are going hyper-electric, meaning that they will become the alternative car makers of choice. This will tip the balance somewhat, but will still permit consumer choice by leaving some companies still making ICE internal combustion engine petrol-gasoline and diesel models.
Hybrid models are a little bit like sitting on the fence.
Yet, as electric vehicle (and hybrid vehicle) demand increases, partly in response to the switch in advertising, car makers will need to respond further, by making new investment.
It will not be DAU – driving as usual.
In the midst of all this change, there might be some car manufacturers who take a different tack. They might ask why they need to buy new factories and new industrial equipment. Why not ask the fuel producers to change their fuels ? I mean, car manufacturers have responded to scientific and regulatory concerns about air quality, by investing, and introducing new kit to combat deleterious exhaust emissions. So for them, petrol-gasoline and diesel can be made clean, burned in their vehicle engines and vented through their emissions control kit, without adding to the burden of air pollution. They’ve paid to clean up after themselves. If it’s net carbon emissions to air that potential consumers are now worried about, why not ask the fuel producers to lower the fossil carbon content of their fuels ?
Carbuyers are increasingly trying to choose better. Carmakers are trying to respond. Why don’t the fuel producers join in with this effort to reduce emissions ? Clean up the last link in the carbon chain.
In addition to asking for alternative/advanced/low carbon fuels from fuel producers, whih would all rely in Renewable Gas, the car manufacturers might get the electric bug for vehicles already in the global fleet and join in with projects to convert ICE vehicles to EV electric drive vehicles. This would be a way of making a business out of used cars as well as new cars; which might be a useful income stream if car sales plummet owing to a weak economy and efforts to reduce car sales.
6. Utility Vehicle Manufacturers
The push from utility vehicle manufacturers on fuel producers, to take the fossil out of their fuels, might be even stronger than for the private automakers. You see, the light goods vehicle and service van market is deeply embedded in and interlinked to the functioning of the peripheral zone of the global economy – small businesses and trades people must use utility vehicles. Whilst individuals may take public transport/transit and relinquish owning a private vehicle, it is not a question of choice for small builder businesses and traders.
Whilst there might be efficiencies of scale in van makers turning over al their fabrication facilities to making electric models, for those that want to continue to offer ICE models, they will need to ask the fuel producers to lower the carbon content of the fuels.
7. Freight Vehicle Manufacturers
Long distance freight in heavy goods vehicles, ships and aeroplanes is not susceptible to carbon reductions in the same way as other sectors.
Large hauliers might be significant enough in size to make an audible ask of the fuel producers to get out of fossil and into renewable.
8. The IMO, Ship Builders & Shipping Companies
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) have been enacting various articles and amendments of the MARPOL since the 1970s – the international Marine Pollution treaty. Recent edicts have impacted on the fuel provision for large cargo and passenger vessels. First there were the Sulfur Emission Control Areas (SECA), and now all ocean-going vessels must comply with the requirement to lower sulfur dioxide emissions. Whilst the recent emphasis has been on reducing the sulfur (sulphur) in marine bunker-fuels, the net result is that there is pressure coming on the fuel producers to substitute fossil fuels for biomass feedstocks in refinery. The reason ? Because the bottom of the barrel of crude petroleum has been used for marine oils, since there has been no other market for this viscous, heavy, long-carbon-chain hydrocarbon mix. And the sulfur from refining crude oil ends up mostly in the bottom of the barrel.
Apart from shale oils, most of the oil grades in the world are becoming heavier in complex hydrocarbons and sulfur. The shale oil “miracle” or “gale” might run out of steam within a decade or so, and the upwards sulfur trajectory across a range of crude oils will be resumed.
Proposals exist to convert shipping vessel drive from MHO/MDO (Marine Heavy Oil/Marine Diesel Oil) to LNG, Liquid Natural Gas, or Methanol in some cases, but this could take some time to invest the replacement equipment. LNG is a good choice, as LNG is transported via shipping ports. Other solutions include using sulfur “scrubbers” onboard.
Of course, another option would be to desulfurise marine oils at source, or replace fossil oils with renewable oils, which would naturally have low sulfur content. As marine fuels are going to remain fossil for some time to come, desulfurisation units must be incorporated into refineries, even for low quality fuel streams, such as marine oils. Refiners will baulk at doing this, because of the added cost of processing to what is consider a cheap, bulk, toxic, waste product.
If they joined the dots, however, they could see that the cheapest and most environmentally-friendly method of desulfurising is using hydrogen, where that hydrogen has been derived in the cheapest way possible from excess renewable electricity and water, produced at times of the day, week, month, season and year when there is a virtually zero-cost supply of renewable power. The best way to ensure low cost hydrogen would be to own your own dedicated renewable power supply.
Will the IMO regulations therefore be instrumental in oil and gas refiners buying wind farms for their own special use – to make the extra hydrogen they need for desulfurisation of marine fuels ?
There are tight and firm relationships between shipping companies and oil refineries. Will the shipping companies be making the ask for Renewable Hydrogen capacity to desulfurise the marine fuels they need ?
And will the shipping companies be asking for a gradual transition from the oil refineries, a way through to seeing more and more LRG – Liquid Renewable Gas (mostly methane) – become available for marine fuel needs ?
Renewable Methanol could be the choice of some short haul shipping services, such as the pleasure boats, smaller holiday cruise ships, passenger and car ferries. They would need to ask their fuel stockists, who would ask their refiners for this fuel.
Table : Petroleum Products and Blends Used as Fuel For Shipping Vessels
9. Other International Agencies, such as IEA Bioenergy and Governments
The International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy stream has been involved in the research and development of a number of biofuel displacements of fossil fuels. Biodiesel is now an accepted (if small) constituent of many fuel blends, for example. Bioethanol is also a globally recognised fuel.
Knowledge in the network is advanced, and work by partners in the tasks will undoubtedly influence directions in governmental policies, for example, the work on biorefining – replacing fossil fuel refineries with biomass-sources molecules.
The ask for Renewable Gas could well be triggered by governments utilising outcomes from IEA Bioenergy Tasks and similar research groups to make demands on their hosted “national” or privatised oil and gas companies.
Countries in north western Europe, including the United Kingdom, may have great cause to see biofuels replacing fossil fuels – as indigenous production of crude petroleum and Natural Gas has slumped significantly in the last decade.
The European Union already has strong policies on Renewable Gas, as part of the ever-evolving Energy Package, backed up by work done by the IEA and the European Commission, such as the Third Energy Package, which contains the Natural Gas Directive, in which Article 2 reads, “In relation to security of supply, energy efficiency/demand-side management and for the fulfilment of environmental goals and goals for energy from renewable sources, as referred to in this paragraph, Member States may introduce the implementation of long-term planning, taking into account the possibility of third parties seeking access to the system”; and Article 5 reads, “5. In order to protect the independence of the regulatory authority, Member States shall in particular ensure that: […] facilitating access to the network for new production capacity, in particular removing barriers that could prevent access for new market entrants and of gas from renewable energy sources […]”
Foundational documents include the Renewable Energy Directive (2018), in which Article 59 reads, “Guarantees of origin which are currently in place for renewable electricity should be extended to cover renewable gas. Extending the guarantees of origin system to energy from non-renewable sources should be an option for
Member States. This would provide a consistent means of proving to final customers the origin of renewable gas such as biomethane and would facilitate greater cross-border trade in such gas. It would also enable the creation of guarantees of origin for other renewable gas such as hydrogen.”; and the Fuel Quality Directive (2011).
Since the anticipiated ratio of biologically-derived biofuels (including gases) and synthetic biofuels (and gases) could be 1:10, there will naturally be a lot of emphasis on how best to produce synthetic, renewable fuels (including gases). Synthesising fuels requires hydrogen, methane and methanol. Under the terms of the legislation, this means that Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methane and Renewable Methanol will be required. This means that one large part of the ask for Renewable Gas in the European region could well come from the federal parliament.
10. Industrial High Energy Consumers
Industries like the manufacturers of steel, concrete and glass have centralised and high energy consumption : they may be influential in making a strong ask of the energy supply companies for renewable electricity and Renewable Gas to lower their sectoral carbon dioxide emissions. This would be particularly the case if they were required to purchase more costly carbon credits, or carbon taxation was implemented.
The major oil and gas companies, along with a range of other organisations and agencies, have ongoing energy modelling projects, building scenarios to paint projections in energy, technology and the wider economy.
Inputs to the world’s energy systems are usually considered immutable – wood is the principal biomass; crude petroleum oil is going to remain the primary feedstock for liquid hydrocarbon fuels; Natural Gas is the majority source of energy gases; and solid fuels are considered to be fossil coal-derived.
The projections into the future are mostly done on a “lasts until” basis, that is there are underlying assumptions that all the fossil fuels that can be economically mined will be, right up to steep depletion, and that nothing can substitute for them as primary energy resources.
Alternative energy resources are considered entirely separately from fossil fuels, and are only projected to form thin slivers of contribution on energy projection graphs. There is an unwritten code that alternative primary energy resources must be forced to compete economically, and that deployments of alternative primary energy will only be commissioned if scarcity is experienced elsewhere. Fossil fuels are thought to prop up the energy system, and be dependable; to remain cost-efficient and cost-competitive under any conditions. We will only build renewable energy production when we need it, being the major thread.
Where admissions are made, for example, where modelling suggests that depletion, economic pressure and policy could affect the levels of fossil fuels mined and brought into the economy, there is a default view generally that this might stimulate alternatives, but from a very low starting point, and with marginal growth.
Emerging technologies and biomass-based feeds into the fossil fuel refining and distribution systems are considered opportunistic, blighted by cost and reliability issues, and are expected to suffer negative economic stimulus, to such an extent that they are not expected to make much more than a sliver of contribution; although in some cases they are trusted to “take up the slack” where fossil fuels fail.
In such projections, where fossil fuels can and will speak for most of the world’s energy demand, without significant economic and political change, the necessary rate of new technology deployment is fractional.
This paradigm is expressed in a number of different ways by different actors, and creates an impression that fossil fuels are failsafe, and naturally dominant. Fossil fuels and alternative energy resources are considered to be chalk and cheese – not of a kind. This belies the opportunities for substitution of fossil fuel feedstocks by biomass-, water- and green electricity-sourced streams.
The major failing in many energy models is that no consideration is given to active transition – that is, how to turn around the downward trendlines of fossil fuel production and sales into upwards shares of alternative fuels production and sales, through molecular and electron substitution from renewable sources.
If alternative technologies and fuels were actively encouraged to displace fossil fuels, according to core strategy within the energy system, this would cause greater levels of deployment, and so accelerate transition. Alternative resources would constitute a larger slice of the overall total, and show what higher decarbonisation potentials exist.
For example, every extra modelling for hydrogen use, for example, the hydrogen increasingly used for in liquid fuels refining and synthesis, written as renewable hydrogen production and use, which will necessitate higher levels of renewable elecricity production/generation and use.
The production of liquid hydrocarbon fuels and chemical feedstocks will be needed for decades to come, but these don’t need to come from crude petroleum oil, Natural Gas and coal. With synthesis, the source of the hydrogen and carbon (and oxygen) landing in the liquid fuel products is not relevant, except it should conform to the requirements of protecting a liveable climate.
With liquid fuel synthesis, we can rest from thinking about complex hydrocarbon primary resources, stop looking at the molecular level of organisation, and start to look at the individual streams of elements : where does the hydrogen flow from ? Where, the carbon ?
With synthesis, the source of the hydrogen and carbon (and oxygen) coming into the energy system is not relevant. What matters is how many of the H, C (and O) are coming from renewable resources. We “3D print” the molecules we need, and we don’t need to dispose of the carbon, oxygen (and sulfur) we don’t use.
The biggest problem is where we get the Young Carbon from : Renewable Carbon needed for liquid fuels needs to come from recently-living biological organisms in order not to tamper with the global long-term carbon cycle.
In systems for Renewable Gas-to-Power-to-Gas, renewable electricity is used to make gas for long-term storage, offsetting electricity generation to times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, and it’s cold. These systems can be centralised, and contained, so the carbon used in the system to lock hydrogen into methane for long-term energy storage, never needs to leave the plant. However, for producing liquid transport fuels, carbon will flow through the supply chain, and so needs to be sourced from renewable, young resources.
With time, it is likely that transport options will mostly become electric, and quite often public, in urban settlements. Freight transportation, and industrial and agricultural machinery fuelling will mostly likely be a combination of light gaseous fuels and electric power. But that time is more than a few decades away, as it will take that long to replace all the vehicles and fuel supply systems. In the meantime, we need renewable liquid fuels.
Energy modelling does not presently include much in the way of molecular and electronic substitution for fossil fuel primary energy resources; is not conscious of the multiplier effect of going beyond the small percentages of substitution by first/second generation biofuels and biomethane.
Since we need to produce liquid fuels for several decades to come – fuels that automatically need to have higher boiling points, and so need to have carbon in them – in order to see the possible speed of the low carbon transition, we need to model every way that fossil carbon and fossil hydrogen can be swapped out for Renewable Carbon and Renewable Hydrogen.
The European Commission, ooh, way back, decided that Biofuels were just what was needed to start the de-carbonisation of transportation. The original plan looked rather yellow and green – farm after farm of oilseed rape – what the Americans term “canola”. Suddenly schoolchildrens’ crayon renditions of the landscape were not as primary in colour as the actual fields.
Some very bad ideas have followed on after. Several companies are still struggling with the idea that algae could turn out, could, I emphasise, be the thing that starts a genuine BioOil market. We’ll see – but most of the designs need an input of carbon dioxide – which would probably come from a fossil fuel-burning power station – so not very renewable, then.