Research and innovation, Sustainability
- 3 minutes
In September, the European Parliament accepted a bill that will support the deployment of sustainable fuels in aviation. The goal is to reach the 70 percent share of environmentally friendly fuel consumption by 2050. SUPSI is also contributing to the creation of new knowledge and technologies in the field of so-called e-fuels with the Institute of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Technology, directed by Maurizio Barbato. Two MEMTi laboratories will cooperate in the study of sustainable fuels and chemical intermediates within the ReFuel.ch consortium, which won the SWEET promotion program tender.
What is the status of knowledge development on these energy carriers and how achievable is the target set by the EU for aviation? Questions we put to Maurizio Barbato.
"Synthetic fuels are particularly suitable for aviation, shipping and heavy transport. Today, total aviation fuel consumption is estimated to be around 250 billion liters per year. A Swiss company researching these fuels intends to produce 50 billion liters per year by 2040. Given that they will not be the only producers, we can imagine that the goal set by the EU is not that far off."
The production of synthetic fuels is nearly a hundred years old. Where does the new element in current research lie?
"The process for obtaining synthetic gasoline was discovered by Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in 1925. They relied on coal and water for production, but historically there has been no need for this energy carrier except in rare circumstances. The production of these fuels to date has not been energy competitive with oil extraction and refining, but today fossil fuels are no longer sustainable. We want to facilitate the industrial development and mass production of e-fuels, which have zero CO2 impact. Our project wants to synthesize fuels from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We subtract it, and once it is consumed, it is put back into circulation, with a neutral final balance. Synthetic fuels have the advantage that they can be substituted for fossil fuels without the need to change the distribution network or transportation, with obvious savings in infrastructure investment."
What is MEMTi's role in the ReFuel.ch consortium?
"ReFuel.ch is a research consortium on synthetic fuels, that is, produced by synthesis. We reconstruct a fuel from the basic building blocks: carbon and hydrogen. We will explore roads already taken and other new ones to obtain gateway compounds, such as methanol, and then move on to other compounds useful for chemical processes. In parallel we will move to olefins to get to fuels. At MEMTi, we are involved with the Thermo-Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which will simulate the reactor for methanol production, and with the Computational Materials Science Laboratory, which will work on the catalyst between methanol and olefins."
What are the complexities and what results do you hope to achieve?
"Reactions occur at high pressures, temperatures must be controlled, and you must aim for high production of end products with few waste products, which in the overall process have an energy cost. In the synthesis of a fuel, one must input the energy it gives off when consumed. Typically, these synthesis processes are not 100 percent efficient; one of our goals is to improve their efficiency by reducing energy expenditure. In addition, we want to achieve processes that are scalable to the industrial level, where there are more variables involved. The experimental reactor may work well, but at full scale things can happen that in the controlled laboratory environment did not happen. We intend to make scalable pilots and demonstrators and then move on to industrial development."
Looking ahead, will synthetic fuels replace other carriers that are being invested in for the mobility of the near future, particularly electric and hydrogen?
"In this energy revolution, we need to focus on the synergies of all the tools available to move away from fossil fuels. Electric mobility is effective for private transportation. For freight transport and to cover long distances, such as for air and ship transport, e-fuels and hydrogen are more promising. Research must continue in all areas: from batteries to hydrogen production through electrolysis. All technologies that will improve energy efficiency are welcome."