New plant in Germany aims to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint
Burning synthetic kerosene only releases into the atmosphere the amount of CO2 previously removed to produce the fuel, making it “carbon neutral”
Representative image. News18
Werlte, Germany: German officials on Monday unveiled what they said was the world’s first commercial plant to manufacture synthetic kerosene, touted as a climate-friendly fuel of the future.
Aviation currently accounts for around 2.5% of global emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. As other forms of transportation are increasingly electrified, the challenge of making large, battery-powered airplanes is daunting.
Experts say electronic fuels can help solve the problem, replacing fossil fuels without major technical modifications to the aircraft.
“The era of burning coal, oil and natural gas is drawing to a close,” German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said at a ceremony to inaugurate the new plant. “At the same time, no one should have to sacrifice the dream of flying. That is why we need alternatives to conventional and climate-damaging kerosene.
The Werlte facility, near Germany’s northwest border with the Netherlands, will use water and electricity from four nearby wind farms to produce hydrogen. In a century-old process, hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide to produce crude oil, which can then be refined into jet fuel.
The combustion of this synthetic kerosene only releases into the atmosphere the amount of CO2 previously removed to produce the fuel, making it “carbon neutral”.
The amount of fuel the plant can produce starting early next year is modest – just eight barrels a day, or about 336 gallons of jet fuel. That would be enough to refuel a small airliner every three weeks.
For comparison, the total fuel consumption of commercial airlines worldwide reached 95 billion gallons in 2019, before the pandemic hit the travel industry, according to the International Air Transport Association.
But Atmosfair, a German nonprofit group behind the project, says its aim is to show that the process is technologically feasible and – when scaled up and with sufficient demand – economically viable.
“It’s a new paradigm, if you will,” said Falko Ueckerdt, senior researcher and team leader at the Potsdam Climate Impact Research Institute who is not involved in the project. “Thanks mainly to cheap solar energy, it will be possible in the future to produce electric fuels as cheap as current fossil fuels. “
Initially, the price of synthetic kerosene produced at Werlte will be much higher than that of regular jet fuel, although Atmosfair is not disclosing how much it will charge its first customer, German carrier Lufthansa.
However, Atmosfair CEO Dietrich Brockhagen says a price of five euros per liter (0.26 gallons) is possible. This is several times what kerosene currently costs, but Atsmofair is banking on carbon taxes which push up the price of fossil fuels, making its product more competitive.
In addition, authorities at national and European level are setting quotas for the amount of e-fuel that airlines will have to use in the future. This will create demand, which will make it more attractive to invest in larger and better factories.
Ueckerdt said five euros per liter is achievable by 2030, when the European Union executive could require airlines to meet 0.7% of their kerosene needs with electric fuels. According to current plans, this would increase by 28% by 2050.
“These are huge markets,” Ueckerdt said.
But he warned that e-fuels are not a short-term solution to the need to quickly reduce global emissions if the Paris climate agreement target is to be met.
Ensuring that the carbon used to produce electric fuels is extracted directly from the atmosphere, rather than as a by-product of burning fossil fuels, is also important, said Ueckerdt
To begin with, the Werlte plant will use fuel composed of a mixture of carbon dioxide from a nearby biogas plant and that captured directly from the air.
Schulze, the Minister of the Environment, acknowledged that Germany may not be the ideal place to produce large quantities of electric fuel. But even if other countries have cheaper solar power thanks to a greater abundance of sunlight, “it will create export opportunities for German technology and the building of factories,” she said.