May 18, 2024
Synthetic Fuel

Synthetic Fuel: A Renewable Alternative to Gasoline

The idea of producing synthetic fuel has been around for over a century but modern work on developing viable synthesis processes began in earnest during the 1920s. Some of the earliest successful efforts to produce liquid fuels from coal and natural gas occurred in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s out of necessity due to limited access to crude oil. The Fischer–Tropsch process was developed and used to produce synthetic fuels and lubricants. After World War II, research continued in Germany and South Africa where significant synthetic fuel industries developed. In the 1970s during the Arab oil embargo, Synthetic Fuel research expanded in the United States with the goal of achieving energy security through domestic production. While early efforts were mostly based on coal gasification and Fischer–Tropsch synthesis, current research is focused on developing renewable synthetic fuels through biomass processing or directly from carbon dioxide and water using renewable energy.

Pathways for Producing Synthetic Fuels

There are three main pathways currently being researched for producing synthetic hydrocarbon fuels:

Gasification of coal or biomass feedstocks followed by Fischer–Tropsch synthesis is a well-established route that has been used commercially. Gasification converts the solid fuels to synthesis gas which is then chemically converted to liquid fuels.
Hydrotreating of plant oils, fats, and alcohols is another option being studied. It involves hydroprocessing biomass-derived oils to generate fuel-grade hydrocarbons with properties similar to diesel. Upgrading of pyrolysis oils from fast pyrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass is also being investigated.
Direct solar thermochemical production of fuels from carbon dioxide and water is an area of active research. Methods under study include solar-driven reduction of carbon dioxide with hydrogen produced through high-temperature water splitting. Photocatalytic and electrocatalytic processes are other emerging approaches being developed.

Fuel Properties and Performance

Synthetic fuel can be engineered to meet current fuel specifications and are fully interchangeable with gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. For example, Fischer–Tropsch diesel has very low sulfur and aromatic content providing environmental benefits compared to petroleum-derived fuels. Synthetic Fuels also have potential benefits in terms of stability during long-term storage and usability in all climates. Lifecycle analysis studies indicate synthetic fuels can achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fuels, especially when biomass or renewable electricity is used instead of fossil fuels in the production process. Vehicle tests have shown synthetic fuels support similar power, efficiency and durability as petroleum fuels. Synthetic fuels could help ensure stable fuel supplies, energy security, and allow the transportation sector to transition away from direct reliance on petroleum.

Current Scale of Synthetic Fuel Production

While synthetic fuel technologies were developed decades ago, large-scale commercial production has mainly occurred in nations like South Africa where domestic oil resources are limited. Currently the total global production capacity for synthetic fuels is around 1.5 million barrels per day. Leaders in synthetic fuel output include Qatar and Malaysia with gas-to-liquids plants, and South Africa which produces over 200,000 barrels per day of Fischer–Tropsch fuels from coal. The United States produced small amounts of oil from shale and via Fischer–Tropsch during World War II but does not currently have any commercial synthetic fuel output. However, interest is increasing to establish domestic plants, especially in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions where abundant and low-cost natural gas reserves exist. Several pilot and demonstration facilities have been planned or operated in the U.S. in recent years as well. Overall, synthetic fuels currently comprise only around 1% of global transportation fuel demand but their contribution could potentially grow significantly in the coming decades depending on policies and economics.

Synthetic Fuel Production and Infrastructure Challenges

While synthetic fuels offer potential benefits, establishing large-scale production facilities faces certain challenges. Standalone gas-to-liquids or coal-to-liquids plants require multi-billion dollar capital investments. Using biomass or waste feedstocks brings additional logistical hurdles associated with collecting, transporting and preprocessing the inputs. The distributed nature of potential biomass supplies means production will likely rely on many smaller regional facilities instead of centralized mega-plants. Developing economical and scalable synthesis processes from carbon dioxide and renewable electricity remains an active area of research as well. Significant investments in infrastructure may also be needed to transport and dispense synthetic fuels depending on where they are produced versus fuel demand centers. Public acceptance could be an issue for some synthetic fuel pathways depending on perceptions of their sustainability and impact on land use and food supplies. Overall, active government incentives and public-private partnerships will likely be important to help establish large synthetic fuel industries able to impact total transportation energy demand.

While hydrocarbon fuels derived from petroleum will continue meeting most global demand for the foreseeable future, synthetic fuels produced through renewable pathways offer a promising alternative. With further research and development, synthetic fuels synthesized from abundant domestic resources like biomass and natural gas could help diversify transportation energy supplies and boost energy security. In the long run, fuel synthesis directly from carbon dioxide and water powered by carbon-neutral renewable electricity could enable truly sustainable fuel production with negligible greenhouse emissions on a lifecycle basis. Continued progress in synthetic fuel technologies carries the potential to facilitate practical solutions supporting both energy and environmental goals in the transportation sector. Judicious public policy and investment will be important to help scale up facilities and infrastructure to increase synthetic fuel outputs to levels that meaningfully impact oil demand.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research.
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it.