Low-carbon liquid fuels are sustainable liquid fuels from non-petroleum origin, with no or very limited net CO2 emissions during their production and use compared to fossil-based fuels. They have a strategic role to play in the transition to a climate-neutral economy.
First blended with conventional fuels, low-carbon fuels will progressively replace fossil-based fuels. The carbon intensity of the fuels will depend on the share of low-carbon liquid fuels blended in the end-product. Only once the fossil component in the fuels sold at the pump is completely replaced by low-carbon liquid fuels, will these fuels be carbon-neutral.
Low-carbon liquid fuels as they come on the market will enable to progressively decarbonise the entire car fleet, existing and new vehicles, on the road. Alternative technologies such a Battery Electric Vehicles or Hydrogen Fuel Cells will require instead a progressive replacement of the car fleet.
Therefore, low-carbon liquid fuels will, for the foreseeable future, provide a competitive solution compared to alternative technologies, and reduce pressure and cost of achieving complete fleet turnover to ensure climate neutrality, also supporting a just transition across Europe.
Internal Combustion Engines powered with low-carbon liquid fuels* (biomass, waste, renewables and recycled CO2) will be as sustainable as Battery Electric Vehicles powered by green electricity.
*These will be climate-neutral through recycled or biogenic CO2 and low-carbon technologies in the production phase (CCS & H2).
A recent study by studio Gear Up and commissioned by FuelsEurope shows that in Western EU countries, only 40%-60% of the population is able to afford a new car, while in Central & Eastern EU countries, less than 20% of the population is. This means that a large part of the population in those countries rely on second-hand vehicles for their mobility needs.
Low-carbon liquid fuels will play a critical role in the energy transition of all transport modes and will give customers a choice between low-carbon technologies, ensuring that low-carbon transport is accessible to all.
The EU’s 2050 climate neutrality objective will only be reachable if all enabling technologies are available.
Only a combination of electrification and other low-carbon technology options for cars and vans will allow faster decarbonisation of road transport while benefitting the European economy, industrial system, and society. Moreover, having a broader mix of technologies during the transition is a more resilient approach in facing implementation challenges, such as limited availability of raw materials, access to charging infrastructure and public acceptance. Find more about the study here.
Capitalising on our technological know-how and flexible infrastructures, we will increasingly switch to new feedstock to progressively reduce net carbon emissions of liquid hydrocarbons.
Food-crop based biofuels
Feedstock: Sustainable food- and feed-crop (e.g. feedstocks such as sugar crops, starch crops), and sustainable vegetable oils;
Technology: Transesterification, fermentation, hydrogenation of vegetable oils. e.g. Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO), Ethanol, FAME (Fatty acid methyl ester).
Hydrotreated Vegetable Oils/Biodiesel, Biomass-to-Liquid and Waste-to-Liquid
Feedstock: Non-food-crop based such as lignocellulosic biomass including wood and residues from forestry, agricultural residues (straw and stover) and energy-crops or waste materials (e.g. waste from industry, waste oil & fats – e. g. waste cooking oils – or solid waste);
Technology: Multiple routes, including fermentation (Ethanol), hydrogenation (HVO) or transesterification of waste oils & fats (FAME), thermochemical conversion routes such as BTL (gasification and Fischer-Tropsh synthesis) or pyrolysis/hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL).
Note: the difference between sustainable 1st generation biofuels and advanced biofuels is related to the feedstock.
Power-to-Liquid synthetic fuels:
Feedstock: Renewable electricity produced from wind, solar or hydro and captured CO2.
Technology: Water electrolysis + fuel synthesis (e.g. Fischer-Tropsch; methanol route).
E-fuels are synthetic fuels, resulting from the synthesis of green hydrogen produced by the electrolysis of water, using green electricity and carbon dioxide (CO2) captured either from a concentrated source (flue gases from an industrial site) or from the air (Direct Air Capture).
The Commission Communication “A hydrogen strategy for a Climate-neutral Europe” of July 2020 outlines the need for other forms of low-carbon hydrogen in the short and medium term, primarily to rapidly reduce emissions from existing hydrogen production and support the parallel and future uptake of renewable hydrogen. This low-carbon hydrogen, also known as blue hydrogen, is produced from gas and Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS)/ Carbon Capture & Use (CCU).
Since 2009, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics have been actively researching the potential of this technology to move from the petri dish to the fuel tank, targeting the technical capability to produce 10,000 barrels per day by 2025. Today, ExxonMobil and SGI are carrying out a basic research programme to develop advanced biofuels from algae and identify the best pathways to make these ground-breaking technologies available to consumers.
BP has signed an agreement with Fulcrum BioEnergy to license its Fischer Tropsch technology to support Fulcrum’s drive to convert municipal solid waste into renewable, low-carbon bio-jet fuel. Their plant will not only hugely reduce the rubbish sent to landfill but will also produce a liquid fuel that emits 80% less CO2 emissions than conventional fuel. This low-carbon liquid fuel is sustainable, renewable, and cost-effective.
Operational as of 2019, Total has transformed its La Mède refinery into France’s first world-class biorefinery, producing the fuels of the future. La Mède is dedicated to meeting the ever-growing demand for low-carbon liquid fuels. It will produce 500,000 metric tons of HVO biodiesel per year, a sustainable and high-quality biofuel, similar in nature to fossil fuels and therefore with no adverse effect on engines.
The biorefinery was designed to produce biofuels from various types of oils, including vegetable oils certified sustainable according to EU criteria as well as used oils, residual oils, and animal fats. La Mède’s feedstock will be made up of 60% to 70% crude vegetable oils (rapeseed, sunflower, soybean, oil palm, corn or new plants such as carinata) and 30% to 40% animal fat, used cooking oil and residual oils exploiting synergies with the existing refinery.
The Mineraloelraffinerie Oberrhein GmbH (MiRO) refinery located on the Rhine in Karlsruhe, southwest Germany, and Stadtwerke Karlsruhe, the local utility company, have together developed a revolutionary environmental project that aims to supply Karlsruhe’s district heating system with waste heat from the refinery. In 2017 and 2018 Almost 2/3 of the district heating systems, operated by Stadtwerke Karlsruhe were supplied by MiRo. In 2018 there were 420,600 MW/h used from MiRo. Through this method, between 100,000 and 120,000 tonnes of CO2 can be avoided each year.
This €24 million investment project will enhance the security of the area ’s heating supply while increasing the energy efficiency of the refinery by up to 5%. As waste heat from the refinery is used, there are no additional CO2 emissions produced for heating purposes. So, the project stops more than 100,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, a strong environmental benefit.
Reliable heat supply from the refinery is a prerequisite for the planned expansion of the district heating network along existing pipeline routes. The network currently has around 180 km of pipeline, and new lines will be added in coming years. Similarly, more than 90% of Karlsruhe’s heating water comes from combined heat and power generation in EnBW’s Rheinhafen18 steam power plant and processed waste heat from MiRO.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is currently one of the main technologies achieving significant emission reduction from industrial processes. CCS is a developed technology - implemented in different locations around the globe. However, viable commercial frameworks must be developed to stimulate the extensive roll-out that is necessary to reach climate targets.
The Norwegian Government is evaluating a full CCS value chain in Norway that will, through public-private partnerships, seek to demonstrate a commercial framework that is acceptable both for industry and the Government. Northern Lights consortium, consisting of Equinor, Shell and Total, has been awarded the development of the CO2 storage part of this value chain. This will be the first storage site in the world receiving CO2 from several industrial sources.
The Ecofining™ technology, developed by Eni and tested in its laboratories, allows the production of high-quality sustainable biofuels while reducing CO2 emissions, particulate emissions and improving engine efficiency.
Eni’s innovative Ecofining™ technology has been applied to the refinery in Venice where, since 2014, Eni has been manufacturing its new Eni Diesel +, a fuel with a high organic and renewable component (15%). Refineries convert organic feedstock such as biomass feedstock and residues, as well as waste oils, to produce high-quality liquid fuels fully derived from renewable sources thanks to the use of green hydrogen. The use of this fuel has contributed to reducing CO2 emissions and demonstrated a significant reduction in pollutant emissions.
This technology uses renewable power to contribute to the production of liquid fuels, using green hydrogen which then reacts with CO2 captured from the air or from other waste sources to produce a mixture of hydrocarbon chains that can be converted into fuels with very low CO2 emission intensity.
These fuels are also known as e-fuels and they are examples of Carbon Capture and Usage (CCU) schemes that can play an important role in the future.
This process consists of electrolysis of water to generate green hydrogen by using renewable electricity. The electrolyser has the potential to provide large quantities of renewable hydrogen for targeted large-scale applications either in industry or transport.
Shell, together with ITM Power and the consortium partners SINTEF, Thinkstep, and Element Energy, launched on 18 January 2018 the REFHYNE project to install a large-scale electrolyser that will produce hydrogen at the Wesseling site in the Rheinland Refinery Complex. This is the largest unit of its kind in Germany and the world’s largest PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) electrolyser.
One and a half years were required for the design and the permitting. The construction began 25 June 2019 and the plant is expected to be operational from 2020 onwards.
The OMV ReOil project is working to extract crude oil back out of plastic by using plastic waste to produce synthetic crude. OMV’s recycling plant is capable of producing 100 litres of crude oil per hour. The Austrian company aims to develop ReOil into a commercially viable, industrial-scale recycling technology with a processing capacity of approximately 200,000 t of used plastics per year by 2025.
The R-crude produced by the ReOil process can be converted into chemical feedstock and low-carbon liquid fuel for transport. Recycling used plastics instead of burning it as waste is one important way to make better use of a valuable resource and contribute to the circular economy.
They will live side by side, as there is no silver bullet, no single technology that will address the challenge of decarbonising the entire transport sector. Low-carbon liquid fuels are part of the energy mix in their own right. The global demand for liquid fuels will remain strong, notably for commercial transport, aviation, marine, petrochemicals, where electrification is not technologically possible.
They are produced from new feedstocks, notably biomass, renewables, waste and captured CO2, which are compliant with EU sustainability standards and are close to zero CO2 content. However, as long as they are blended with fossil fuels, low-carbon liquid fuels cannot be labelled as zero-carbon fuels, even if they reduce their CO2 intensity.
The production of low-carbon liquid fuels implies emissions (Scope 2) which we will compensate by the use of clean hydrogen and Carbon Capture Storage (CCS), ultimately enabling negative emissions by 2050. The switch from fossil-based to non-fossil feedstock in using low-carbon liquid fuels (Scope 3) will allow further cuts in carbon intensity.
They are made from solar, wind and hydro, all renewable energy sources. The CO2 component of these fuels is captured from the atmosphere, and released when the fuel is used. This net-zero CO2 cycle makes e-fuels climate-neutral. E-fuels made from low-carbon hydrogen, produced from gas and Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS)/ Carbon Capture & Use (CCU) can also be labelled as climate-neutral fuels.
The refinery of the future will become a hub where all these different fuels will be processed in a way that complies with the automotive industry’ specifications.
The industry stands ready to start building the first commercial operating plants at scale as soon as the enabling policy framework is implemented.
Liquid fuels are highly taxed, regardless of their carbon intensity. This needs to change. We need an enabling policy framework, achieving the double objective of keeping fuel prices socially acceptable and making a business case for investments, hence providing incentives comparable to other low-carbon technologies, such as electrification.
Air quality is not determined by the fuel, but by the vehicle. The latest EURO 6d and EURO 7 vehicles are extremely clean. Recent tests under real driving conditions have shown that EURO 6d vehicles are fully compliant with EU emission level limits (for PMs & NOx), whereas existing emission-control technologies will enable the offset of the remaining emissions.