Driving Porsche’s Future eFuel: Can It Keep Combustion Engines Running?
We’ve written extensively about Porsche’s investment in a consortium led by HIF (Highly Innovated Fuels) working to produce carbon-neutral gasoline through a method of assembling hydrogen atoms freed from water by electrolysis with carbon removed from the atmosphere. When the process is powered by green energy, burning such e-gasoline recycles CO2 instead of adding new CO2 to the atmosphere by burning “sequestered” fossil carbon. But until one visits the demonstration plant at the bottom of the western hemisphere and drives a Porsche Panamera powered by carbon diverted from the atmosphere, it’s hard to fully grasp the concept. And a plant tour is worth a thousand Zoom calls, when it comes to understanding chemical refining. Here’s what we learned in Patagonia.
Beer’s Contribution to eFuel
The Haru Oni eFuels demonstration plant has been up and running for a little while, but a final phase of construction will install nine 60-foot-tall carbon-capture monoliths sourced from Global Thermometer. This stack should begin pulling 330 pounds of CO2/year out of the air swiftly blowing past the plant by the end of 2023. Until then, Linde is trucking CO2 in from a nearby beer brewery. This “plant-based” CO2 is renewable and still qualifies the resulting eFuel as carbon-neutral, because if it weren’t compressed and converted to gasoline it would have been vented to the atmosphere.
Fluid Versus Fixed Bed Reactor
ExxonMobil patented a methanol-to-gas process in the 1970s to convert oil-field flare-gas into gasoline when oil prices were peaking. That process relied on a catalyst material that needed periodic “de-coking.” This requirement necessitated multiple fixed reactor beds, some of which were being regenerated and restarted at any given time.
A more recent process improvement simplifies the design to a single fluid-bed reactor, in which the ZSM-5 (Zeolite Socony Mobil-5) catalyst pellets are propelled through the reactor by nitrogen gas, pulled out at the end for regeneration, then reinserted back into the front of the reactor. Use of a single reactor reduces capital expenses by 30 percent, while continuous operation improves the quality of the product. The fluid-bed reactor also operates at vastly lower pressure (70 versus 300 psi), which contributes to a 40-percent operating-cost savings.
A demonstration unit was recently built in China and the reactor at the Haru Oni plant in Chile is identical. The planned full-scale production facility will simply expand this design.
Vientos Fuertes Wild Williwaw Winds
You can read about how atmospheric pressure differences between the oceans flanking the tip of South America ensure an average 70-percent wind load and 6,000 hours of wind per year. Standing under the 265-foot-tall windmill stanchion and hearing its 215-foot-long blades whoosh by really drives home the reason this eFuels operation was located here. The mills can operate with wind speeds between 2.5 and 56 mph (above which they turn the blades and the mill to parallel the wind.
A proton-exchange-membrane (PEM) was chosen to crack the water into hydrogen because it can better tolerate the variable input power that wind provides, though in July the plant will be adding a battery storage system to further smooth power delivery. And having electrolysis occur within a few yards of the methanol- and gasoline-production processes ensures this green hydrogen gets used within 15 minutes of production—a European requirement for claiming green H2. For this reason, all eFuels produced here will go to Europe. Facilities are also planned for Matagorda County (Houston area), Texas to supply eFuels to California and in Tasmania in Australia to supply Asia, with both coming online in 2027. The Texas project’s carbon-free energy source will primarily be nuclear power.
Green Hydrogen Hub
Because of the fierce, continuous winds, this area of southern Chile isn’t densely populated by people prone to complaining about windmills. Creating a grid infrastructure to transport wind-power to population-dense industrial centers is cost prohibitive. But there’s a growing demand for green hydrogen, and when liquified, either as ammonia, eGasoline or methanol-based aviation fuels—this green hydrogen is easily transported, effectively exporting the wind energy. Even the shipping can be “greened” by converting ship engines to run on the e-methanol precursor to eGasoline.
Chile’s full-scale production eFuels plant will be located just south of the demo plant near the Punta Arenas airport, drawing power from a wind farm located just north of Haru Oni. That farm will feature 60 windmills (300 MW) and carbon-capture monoliths capable of snagging 250,000 tons of CO2 per year to make 17 million gallons of eFuels. In all, the region is expecting $29 billion worth of investment in green hydrogen projects.
eGasoline: Chemically Indistinguishable
The biggest difference between eGasoline and the petro gasoline you’re pumping now is that it never had any sulfur or other impurities that needed to be filtered out, and that the process to produce it didn’t also leave society with a pile of other awful heavy hydrocarbons (the only byproducts of this process are oxygen and light gasses like butane and propane that are salable but will ultimately contribute to increasing efficiency of the full-scale production). To an engine computer, a fuel injector, or a catalytic converter, this fuel is indistinguishable from traditional gasoline. It won’t even last any longer in storage without stabilization agents (zombie-apocalypse screenwriters, take note).
Pricing and Next Steps
Porsche is a shareholder, stakeholder, and research partner in the HIF Global-led consortium building this plant. It isn’t “buying” the fuel per se, rather it has rights to research the fuel’s performance in racing and other use cases. So the “price” is unknown, but expensive (roughly $45/gallon). Don’t worry, you’ll never have an opportunity to buy this fuel. In fact, it may never be marketed directly. In the near term it could simply be added to the national gasoline supply infrastructure. Decades from now it could be the only gasoline permitted for use. By the time eGasoline arrives in your fuel tank, HIF is hopeful that volume production will better align pricing with petro fuels.
Driving A Porsche on eGasoline
Following our plant tour, we drove to the back of the plant in a Cherry Metallic Panamera 4S to fill up on guilt-free* gasoline. The asterisk acknowledges that in meeting global standards for 93-octane gasoline, certain additives are required, and these are not all carbon-neutral. And even when driving a brand-new Porsche, trace amounts of engine-lubricating oil will be burned, resulting in new CO2 and trace other potential emissions. So a combustion vehicle operating on eFuel does not qualify as ZEV motoring. But it dramatically reorients the discussion of cradle-to-grave emissions.
Not surprisingly, none of the gathered journalists piloting any of the Panameras on hand—powered by V-6, hybrid, and turbo powertrains—reported any evidence of performance deviating from expectations. While it’s possible the rocks and trees of the Torres del Paine National Park we passed through may have recognized the carbon molecules emitting from our tailpipe, we’re certain the skeletons of some 46 ichthyosaurs recently revealed by melting glaciers would not. You won’t either, and we car enthusiasts need to loudly champion any and every effort to help us continue to enjoy our combustion powered vehicles—new and old—by running them on recycled CO2. Just pray that greatly increased production plunges that current $40-plus/gallon price.
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