Towards net zero with synthetic fuel gasoline

How the integration of a synthetic gasoline production plant into an existing refinery is crucial for reducing CO2 emissions while ensuring continuity of supply.

Constanza Berckemeyer
CAC Engineering

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Article Summary

The world is currently facing two contrasting scenarios. On the one hand, national governments around the world have committed to highly ambitious goals to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and other greenhouse gases (GHG) (UNFCCC, 2024) via their Nationally Determined Contributions. On the other hand, the demand for oil and gas continues to grow, prices are up in all markets, and production has increased (OPEC, 2023).

Achieving the goal of limiting the increase in the global average temperature to less than 2ºC while aiming for no more than 1.5ºC by 2050 requires a significant shift in the entire global energy supply and demand system that we all use today.

Many of the world’s top companies have committed to net zero goals with emissions reduction targets, and are playing a key role as first movers. Finding substitutes that can promote such a systemic change will be essential for balancing production processes and their economy. As the world transitions to lower carbon energy sources, the role of hydrocarbons in the energy market will gradually decline. However, the use of crude oil as a feedstock for petrochemicals will persist and even increase, mainly in non-OECD countries (OPEC, 2023).

The transport sector is a significant contributor to global GHG emissions and is predominantly reliant on conventional fossil fuels. Together with electrification, substitution of fossil fuels with renewable or low-carbon fuels represents a transformative approach to mitigating these environmental impacts and steering the sector towards a sustainable future.

In developed economies, the transition to electric vehicles is underway. However, low-carbon fuels (synthetic fuels, renewable fuels of non-biological origin (RFNBOs) or biofuels) represent a viable alternative as a means of decarbonising the internal combustion engine, which will continue to comprise the largest segment of the existing road vehicle fleet for at least the next decade.

The role of synthetic fuels in diversifying decarbonisation options for road, aviation, and maritime transport is recognised. Synthetic low-carbon fuels are drop-in fuels that are fully fungible with conventional fossil fuels. They exhibit the same advantages of high energy density and can make use of existing storage and transportation infrastructure (IEA, 2024).

From the market perspective, low-emission fuels are at a pivotal juncture. Governments are introducing policies that support low-carbon options, including incentives such as synthetic fuel mandates, which will create the commercial drive to speed up the transition to low-carbon transport.

The automotive industry’s support for synthetic fuels (commonly named e-fuels) is growing, especially in Germany, Italy, France, and Hungary. The highly influential motor racing industry is transitioning to low-carbon fuels (Oltermann, 2023). Companies are introducing net zero strategies in all markets, and more than 200 low-carbon fuel projects are currently under development globally. However, synthetic fuels are expected to remain more expensive than fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

With more than 60 years of engineering and construction experience within the refining, petrochemical, and chemical sectors, CAC Engineering has used these experiences to develop substitute products and solutions. It has a major programme to develop technologies for the production of synthetic fuels via the methanol route, the first of which, synthetic gasoline, is now at the market readiness level. CAC’s patented synthetic gasoline production technology has proven reliable, with more than 6,000 hours of operation in an industrial-scale demonstration facility (CAC Synfuel, 2023). This process produces a drop-in synthetic gasoline with a CO2 footprint reduction of up to 90%, depending on the methanol source.

Substituting fossil fuels with renewable or low-carbon alternatives is a pivotal imperative in expediting the rapid decarbonisation of the transport sector (see box below).

How can we substitute fossils with renewable/low-carbon fuels?
Renewable fuels, including hydrogen, biofuels, and synthetic fuels (e-fuels) produced through sustainable processes, offer a promising avenue to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation. Biofuels derived from sustainable organic matter, for instance, present a carbon-neutral alternative as the CO2 emitted during combustion is offset by the carbon absorbed during biomass growth.

When produced using fully renewable methods like electrolysis powered by clean energy sources, hydrogen provides a zero-emission fuel option for various transport modes. Additionally, synthetic fuels, created by capturing and utilising CO2 emitted during their production, offer a closed carbon loop, contributing to a circular carbon economy. This circular economy is one of the many advantages that the methanol route provides to synthetic fuel production. Other advantages are the existing transport and storage infrastructure and the 100 million ton methanol market around the globe.

The benefits of substituting fossil fuels extend beyond emissions reduction. Embracing renewable and low-carbon alternatives fosters energy security by diversifying the fuel mix and reducing dependence on geopolitically sensitive resources. Moreover, it stimulates innovation and investment in green technologies, creating a ripple effect of economic opportunities and job creation in the burgeoning sustainable energy sector.

To realise the full potential of this substitution, collaborative efforts from governments, industries, and consumers are imperative. Policymakers must enact supportive regulations and incentives to accelerate the transition, while industries must invest in research, development, and infrastructure for the production and distribution of renewable fuels. Simultaneously, consumers play a crucial role by embracing sustainable choices and advocating for eco-friendly transport options. Together, these concerted actions can propel the transport sector towards a future where the reliance on fossil fuels is replaced by a diversified and sustainable array of renewable and low-carbon alternatives.

How is the gasoline synthesised?
The methanol-to-gasoline process developed by CAC Engineering (CAC MethaFuel) comprises a one-reactor step process with conditions that make it possible to specifically influence the properties of the gasoline formed. The methanol flows together with circulating gas into the gasoline reactor, where it is converted into hydrocarbons and water. The raw gasoline is then fractionated into synthetic gasoline with LPG and heavy gasoline as byproducts (see Figure 1).

After the gasoline fractionation step, the product achieves a quality that complies with the parameters specified in EN 228 and can be promptly used as sustainable blend component (see Table 1). The heavy gasoline can be sent to a hydro-treatment unit to upgrade it into gasoline or, alternatively, sold as a product.

For the methanol, it is important to recognise the flexibility to process different sources and qualities of methanol, starting with an e-methanol, bio-methanol, or recycled methanol, which could be a waste from other chemical industries. This will impact on the product’s footprint, with a CO2 reduction of up to 100% if a negative footprint methanol is considered. This also increases feedstock availability and security.

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