By Philippe Ducom, President, ExxonMobil Europe.
One of my favourite ways to travel on holiday and to discover new local destinations throughout our continent, is still by driving my car. It gives me the ultimate sense of freedom, a sensation we’ve all unfortunately been lacking during the last year of lockdowns. As we finally start to see light at the end of the tunnel, I look forward to discovering Europe again. But more importantly, I’m looking forward to doing so with a lower carbon footprint. How will fellow Europeans be able to do this? Probably, thanks to the growing role of low-carbon liquid fuels.
What are low-carbon liquid fuels?
Many people don’t know what low-carbon liquid fuels are exactly, and what solutions they can bring in the lower-emission future. So, let me start at the beginning: Low-carbon liquid fuels are liquid fuels from non-petroleum origin, with no or very limited net CO₂ emissions during their production and use. Biofuels derived from non-food-based biomass are an example. First, plants, or biomass eventually used to produce biofuels, go through the process of photosynthesis to grow – taking CO₂ out of the air. Later, when biofuels are used in a car’s engine, the CO₂ released back into the air only replaces that which was taken out, making the life cycle carbon footprint of these liquid fuels lower or even net carbon neutral. Another member of the low-carbon liquid fuels family are synthetic fuels. These fuels are manufactured by combining CO₂ captured directly from the air, with low-carbon hydrogen. This produces a fuel that is very low or even net zero carbon across its life cycle.
The best part about these low-carbon liquid fuels is that the infrastructure they need to keep European cars moving is already in place. This means that we could keep using existing storage, distribution, and filling-station networks to facilitate the availability of low-carbon liquid fuels. And more importantly, it also means that the EU’s existing fleet of vehicles can benefit from lower emissions. In many European countries, you may already be putting biofuel in your car without even realizing it. For example, unleaded ‘SP95-E10’ fuel is labelled ‘E10’ because it contains up to 10 percent bioethanol – and it’s widely available across Europe. In other words, lower-carbon liquid fuels are already here and represent a complementary solution that, while not talked about as often, are as important as electric vehicles or any other technology that can contribute to Europe’s ambition of climate neutrality by 2050.
Furthermore, since low carbon liquid fuels are compatible with existing car engine technology, their growing use could accelerate emissions reduction. This could complement the gradual growth of the electric fleet, by providing more widespread low-carbon solutions throughout the bulk of Europe’s existing fleet. The oil and gas sector is well placed to drive this solution. According to the IEA, companies active in energy technology sectors have increased their annual energy R&D spending by around 40% over the last decade. In addition, the industry can call on its technological know-how, operational experience, and ability to lead large-scale projects. One example of a project with large-scale potential is the recent launch of a new ExxonMobil-Porsche collaboration on e-fuels. This agreement aims to find pathways toward potential future consumer adoption in road transport, by testing advanced biofuels and renewable, lower-carbon e-fuels in high-performance motorsports engines.
More low-carbon liquid fuels in the pipeline
Besides being a fan of both cars and European travel, I’m above all an engineer with a passion for science. And our scientific teams keep me fascinated by continuously coming up with new, exciting technologies. High on ExxonMobil’s R&D agenda for example, is the development of advanced biofuels. Now, why are these important? Many vehicles given their large size – in particular airplanes, ships and heavy duty trucks – will continue to rely on the high energy density of liquid fuels in the future, for lack of a readily available alternative. So it is vital that we invest in ways to reduce the carbon intensity of liquid fuels.
The road to Europe’s climate neutral transport
While low-carbon liquid fuels already provide solutions to decarbonize mobility, there is still some road ahead before they are widely produced at a commercial scale. So, what needs to happen to make low-carbon liquid fuels more easily scalable?
First, increased collaboration between industry and policymakers is fundamental. The regulatory framework is at least equally important as the technological developments when it comes to creating the right investment incentive for the commercial scale deployment of the latest low-carbon liquid fuels technology. And this enabling policy framework should be based on collaboration between stakeholders as well as a technology-neutral approach to transport solutions, which enhances complementarity.
Secondly, synergies are needed between the different technologies and solutions that keep Europe moving. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in a decarbonized mobility future. Low-carbon liquid fuels, electric vehicles, fuel-cell hydrogen, and other alternatives in road transport should be available side by side, to fulfil European consumers’ demand for safe and affordable mobility solutions, that are lower in emissions. After all, who isn’t looking forward to enjoying the close but priceless freedom again of letting your car take you wherever you want to go.