Someone is creating e-fuels, skeptics or not, and Texas seems to be in the running for e-fuel capital of the world. The latest addition to Lone Star is South Korea’s SK Trading International, which has just invested a significant amount of money in US company Infinium.
What is electric fuel?
Think of EVs as a shortcut to biofuels, and you’re on the right track. The idea is to combine hydrogen and carbon without taking a lot of energy to grow crops, harvest them and process them into fuel.
The Department of Energy’s newest funding agency, ARPA-E, plunged into the world of electric fuels from a microbiological perspective about 12 years ago.
“The ARPA-E Electrofuel Program uses microorganisms to create liquid transportation fuel in a new and different way that can be up to 10 times more energy efficient than current biofuel production methods. ARPA-E is the only US government agency currently funding research into electrofuels,” they enthused in 2010.
“Electrofuels completely bypass photosynthesis by using microorganisms that are self-sustaining and do not need solar energy to grow or produce biofuel,” they added. “These microorganisms can directly use energy from electricity and chemical compounds such as hydrogen to produce liquid fuel from carbon dioxide (CO2).”
Who killed electric fuel?
Well, that was then. The Electrofuels program was launched from an ambitious package of a dozen projects involving some of the top research universities in the US. Together with the companies, national laboratories of the Ministry of Energy were also represented Gingko Bioworks and OPX Biotechnologies.
This seems to be the extent of ARPA-E’s interest. Recently, Ginkgo has been using its engineered microorganisms in other areas. It looks like the company has shelved work on the electric fuel, at least for now.
OPX was acquired by Cargill in 2015 Kargil also seems to have moved on, along with the rest of the world. If anyone has found information on a microorganism-based electrofuel R&D program that can be put into commercial production, please let us know in the comments.
New types of electric fuel arise from the ashes
The electric fuel did not end there. The search for a shortcut to biofuels continued, and after 2010 something happened that made all the pieces come together. The cost of renewable energy has fallen, and this has opened the door to an industrial-type system that takes microorganisms out of the picture.
“Electrofuel (e-fuel) uses green electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and combines and processes this hydrogen with carbon dioxide to produce gasoline, diesel and jet fuel,” explains Infineum.
That’s basically all. “Electrofuel is here defined as fuel made from electricity, water and carbon dioxide — could potentially help manage changes in electricity generation, reduce the need for biofuels in the transportation sector using current infrastructure, and be useful in sectors where switching to another type of fuel is difficult, such as shipping,” the research team wrote in a 2019 study , published in the magazine Environmental sciences and technologies.
If you understand “potentially”, that’s the hard part. In 2019, it seemed that commercially viable electric fuel was still far in the future.
Another analysis, published in the same journal last year, compared the cost of electric fuel with petroleum fuel offset by direct air capture and carbon sequestration. It doesn’t seem like a very steep mountain to climb on electric fuel. However, the study concluded that electric fuel will have a lot of hill climbing to do in the near future.
“This is evidenced by this technical and economic analysis based on optimization using modern technologyhydrocarbon electric fuel will cost more than $4/liter gasoline equivalent (lge), potentially falling to $1.7–1.8/lge in the next decade and <$1/lge by 2050. Only in the latter case can electric fuel be less expensive than the use of petroleum fuel compensated by DAC with sequestration," the study notes.
SK uses Texas for e-fuel. A turning point
Research or not, policymakers and renewable energy stakeholders are already betting on electric fuels to help spark the green economy of the future. Europe in particular has become a hotbed of e-fuel activity with the 2018 update. EU directive on renewable energy sources. Offshore wind energy the Baltic Sea also beckoned e-fuel stakeholders to the Baltic countries.
In Texas, the EV market could get very crowded, very quickly. Texas already has all the infrastructure needed to support liquid fuels, including mainline pipelines, refineries and seaports.
New electronic fuel facility in Matagora county under the auspices of HIF Global is already working through the company’s branch in the USA, and Infinium caused some excitement on the Intertubes last February when she contacted the Texas firm Danbury at an e-fuel facility in Brazoria County.
Denbury and SK Trading joining the electric fuel club is an exciting development in the energy transition. Denbury is an oil producer, as is SK Trading’s parent, SK. From this perspective, venturing into e-fuel territory looks like little more than an exercise in carbon offsets. However, both companies are striving for leading positions in the low-carbon economy. By getting ahead of the EV pack, they can create the financial space in which to divest their fossil assets. Whether they will or not is another matter.
Texas is at a crossroads
For that matter, SK is already looking beyond Texas. “SK Trading International (SKTI), a subsidiary of SK Innovation, today announced the closing of an institutional financing round for Infinium, an innovator in the field of clean fuel. The investment will support the acceleration of Infinium’s commercial developments worldwide,” the company said in a press release earlier this month.
Such a global view is probably a wise move. Policymakers in Texas declared war on women long before the US Supreme Court did its part in the Dobbs case, more recently they took offense at financial firms that ESG policy supportand now any idiot has the right to run around the state with a gun.
The way of green hydrogen has revealed energy potential across the US, not just in states with fossil reserves. If the environment for environmentally and socially responsible business in Texas disappears, many other US states are waiting to take its place.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image (screenshot): Electronic fuel courtesy of Infinium.
Appreciate CleanTechnica’s originality and clean tech news coverage? Consider becoming a CleanTechnica member, supporter, technician or ambassador — or patron on patreon.
Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.