To that question, Bosch says yes. Internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) can be made carbon neutral with synthetic fuels made solely with renewable energy. How it works: In a first stage, hydrogen is produced from water. Carbon is added to this to produce a liquid fuel. This carbon can be recycled from industrial processes or even captured from the air using filters. Combining CO2 and H2 then results in the synthetic fuel, which can be gasoline, diesel, gas, or even kerosene, according to Bosch. Pilot projects to commercialize synthetic diesel, gasoline, and gas are currently underway in Norway and Germany.
“Even if all cars were to drive electrically one day, aircraft, ships, and even trucks will still run mainly on fuel. Carbon-neutral combustion engines that run on synthetic fuels are thus a very promising path to explore – also for passenger cars. In addition, synthetic fuels can be designed to burn practically soot-free. In this way, the cost of exhaust-gas treatment can be reduced.” — Dr. Volkmar Denner, chairman of the board of management of Robert Bosch GmbH.
Though expensive now, Bosch says a production ramp-up and favorable electricity prices could mean that synthetic fuels become significantly cheaper, eventually between €1-1.40 per liter. By 2050, the use of synthetic fuels as a scheduled supplement to electrification could save up to 2.8 gigatons of CO2 or three times Germany’s carbon-dioxide emissions in 2016.
Because synthetic fuels are compatible with the existing infrastructure and engine generation, Bosch says achieving a high degree of market penetration would take far less time than electrifying the existing vehicle fleet. “Nor will anything change for the drivers of older vehicles, as even classic cars will still run on synthetic gasoline – in terms of chemical structure and fundamental properties, it is still gasoline.”
Moreover, synthetic fuels avoids the issues attendant with biofuels such as indirect land use change:
“Synthetic fuels do not mean a choice between fuel tank and dinner plate, as biofuels do. And if renewable energy is used, synthetic fuels can be produced without the volume limitations that can be expected in the case of biofuels because of factors such as the amount of land available.”
The market would be there for these fuels, particularly for aircraft, ships and trucks, but in my it’s going to come down to three things 1) substantially ramping up renewable energy so that carbon neutrality can actually be delivered, 2) government commitments under the Paris Agreement to decarbonize transport for the foregoing sources continues, 3) the costs are actually what Bosch projects. If the costs become economic, that could be a challenge to the rise of EVs in the passenger car fleet.
Incidentally, global renewable electricity capacity is expected to grow by 42% (or 825 GW) by 2021, according to IEA, pushing the total share of electricity generation to 28%. This growth is shown in the figure below.
The topic of carbon-neutral and even net negative ICEVs is a topic I’ll be exploring in an upcoming report for Future Fuel Outlook members.
Tammy Klein is a consultant and strategic advisor providing market and policy intelligence and analysis on transportation fuels to the auto and oil industries, governments, and NGOs. She writes and advises on petroleum fuels, biofuels, alternative fuels, automotive fuels, and fuels policy.