Alternative fuels: More sustainable traffic without crude oil

Car journeys, air travel and shipping are an integral part of our globalized world, but they also pose a threat to our climate. Alternative fuels made from biomass or based on hydrogen offer promising solutions for the mobility dilemma: with the right technologies, they are climate-neutrally producible and thus a great hope for the energy turnaround.

Being mobile is perfectly natural for most of us. We take the car to work, fly to our holiday destination – and cruise tourism is still growing. Mobility means freedom, allows us to see the world – and is sometimes just plain comfortable. But it also has its downsides. Approximately a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions can be traced back to traffic. After all, the gas that was bound in mineral oil thousands of years ago is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned.

Concerning the emerging e-mobility, the demand to only use electricity from renewable sources is still far from reality at the moment. Thus, our means of transportation considerably contribute to climate change. Especially since fossil fuels are limited by definition and will inevitably run out sooner or later. Therefore, we need alternatives to classic petrol, diesel and kerosene: green, regenerative alternatives.

An everyday life without means of transport is nowadays hardly to imagine. Full streets and a lot of traffic are part of our day-to-day life.

An everyday life without means of transport is nowadays hardly to imagine. Full streets and a lot of traffic are part of our day-to-day life.

Biofuels: Mobility, powered by nature

Good news is that these alternatives already exist – for example in the form of biofuels. The classics are biodiesel, which is based on vegetable oil, as well as bio-ethanol, which is produced from sugar cane, sugar beet or wheat. Since these plant-based raw materials grow back continually, combustion in the engine is basically climate-neutral: the CO2 released during driving is limited to the quantities that the plants have absorbed beforehand – a sustainable cycle is created.

At present, the share of biofuels in the total amount of fuel consumed is still low – in 2014 it was a meagre 5.1 percent. For the future, however, experts estimate that more biofuels will end up in our tanks. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2045 about 20 percent of road traffic will be powered by vegetable fuel.

BioTfuel: plant residues in the tank

Consequently, it’s only fitting that we at thyssenkrupp have a clear goal: We want to become climate-neutral by 2050 – and that also applies to the emissions generated by using our products. That’s why we continually work on the future of green fuels.

Our BioTfuel project aims precisely in this direction: With this innovative technology, our energy experts want to make it possible to produce Btl fuel cheaply and thus suitable for mass production. “Btl” stands for “biomass to liquids” and describes the production process of the new biofuels in detail. Biomass, i.e. natural waste such as green waste, straw and waste wood is turned into high-quality aviation fuel and diesel. This is a major advantage over the old biofuel generation, for which edible plants such as rapeseed, corn or sugar cane are processed. Considering the lack of food in many countries, this process led to criticism and defined the “food or fuel discussion”.

This plant produces high-quality aircraft fuel and diesel from biofuels.

This plant produces high-quality aircraft fuel and diesel from biofuels.

If the project is successful, the Btl fuel could be offered pure or mixed with fossil fuel: for all diesel or kerosene powered engines and other engines, regardless of whether they are used in cars, trucks, trains, ships or airplanes. A conversion will therefore not be necessary. And best of all, the innovative biofuels save 90 percent of CO2 emissions compared to conventional fuel.

E-Fuels: Green hydrogen to turn transportation around

In addition to alternative plant-based fuels, the so-called “e-fuels” are also a hot topic. They are artificial fuels based on green hydrogen – “green” because the energy required for water electrolysis is obtained from renewable energy sources. The idea is simple: hydrogen and CO2 react and form methane – the most important ingredient for green, synthetically produced and petroleum-free fuel.

One way to achieve this is our Carbon2Chem Initiative – a globally unique large-scale project in which the gases produced during steel production, especially the climate-damaging CO2, are no longer burned but transformed into valuable raw materials such as methanol or ammonia. Metallurgical gases contain chemical elements such as nitrogen, hydrogen and above all CO2. Our experts further process the substances into a precursor for methanol, from which fuel can be produced in the final step. This innovative technology could be used on an industrial scale in five to ten years.

Oxyfuel: CO2 becomes synthesis fuel

The energy-intensive cement industry, which is responsible for around seven percent of global COemissions, also offers opportunities for e-fuels: Our oxyfuel process allows the harmful greenhouse gas CO2 to be separated in concentrated form and used as fuel, amongst other things. With our innovative method, the burning process in clinker production is no longer operated with ambient air, but with pure oxygen. As a result, hardly any nitrogen enters the firing process and highly concentrated CO2 is produced. In this form, the gas can finally be separated so that it does not enter the atmosphere. Thanks to its purity and using other technologies, the greenhouse gas can then be converted into a raw material – and thus forms the basis for the production of e.g. fertilizers, plastics but also synthetic fuels.

Turning traffic around: Experts see alternative fuels as an important component

The current climate debate opens up new opportunities for alternative plant-based and synthetic fuels. Their breakthrough would have the potential to make a fundamental contribution to climate protection. Manfred Aigner is Director of the Institute of Combustion Technology at the German Aerospace Center. In a recent interview with the Handelsblatt, the advisor to the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology emphasized that even though biofuels and e-fuels are not an alternative to electromobility, they are elementary for the energy revolution. Climate-neutral fuels are a true alternative, especially for aircrafts and ships where electric propulsion is not an option.

However, according to a recent Yougov survey, the majority of German drivers are also prepared to refuel sustainably, assuming affordable prices. The signs for a turnaround are green on the road as well.