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eForFuel is a research and development project funded by the EU, which aims to find technical solutions to recycle carbon dioxide (CO2) into fuels using electrical power. It is one of several projects funded by the EU to address renewable energy and technology challenges. The project is based on the idea of using excess electricity from renewable sources, waste CO2 from industry, and genetically modified bacteria to produce hydrocarbon fuels that are ready for use as car or jet fuel.
What does the word eForFuel mean?
eForFuel is an acronym, that consists of three parts: “e” “for” and “Fuel”. The “e” stands for electricity that is needed to enable a chemical reaction of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and H2O (water). This reaction generates the “for” which stands for formate, a chemical that acts as an intermediate between CO2 and fuel. The formate is then fed to microbes that can digest it and produce “Fuel“. So eForFuel is just a short way of saying electro-Formate-Fuel.
Who funds this research and who is on the team?
The project is funded by the European Union under its Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. Horizon 2020 awards research funds to projects that answer the competitive and open calls published on its website. The EU has determined for most of the projects it funds that a mixture of pure research interests and economic interests are an advantage to bring work from the scientific lab to practical applications in the real world. eForFuel consists of 14 partners: 4 research organizations, 3 academic institutions, 1 large industry partner (a global steel and mining corporation) and 6 small and medium-sized enterprises (including biotechnology companies, and companies responsible for environmental impact analysis and science communication). For more in-depth info about the team go here.
What is the goal of eForFuel?
The project wants to produce fuels that are ready for use from waste CO2 with the help of electricity, water and genetically modified bacteria.
The scientific concept is the following: first, CO2 and water are put through an electrolyzer, a device that uses electric current to carry out a chemical reaction. In this case, the water and CO2 are transformed into formic acid, an acid usually found in ants. Second, the formic acid is transferred into a fermenter that contains genetically modified E. coli bacteria. These bacteria are designed to digest the formic acid and in turn produce hydrocarbons, namely propane and isobutene in gas form. It is fairly easy to separate these gases from the microbial culture, and they can be transformed to fuels that can be directly used in existing engines and facilities: propane as itself, and isobutene for the production of isooctane (used in aviation fuels).
Each of these single steps has already been achieved in the laboratory – but now the challenge is to bring them all together, to refine them and make it work well enough so it can be used in industry.
What is carbon capture technology?
A few strategies to get rid of excess CO2 are summarized under two terms, which are used increasingly: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU). Instead of emitting CO2 into the air, some industries are collecting CO2 and pumping it into underground storage sites (caverns) or depleted oil and gas fields. CCS is not an easy technique, as underground spaces are not always available, there is a possibility for leaks, and it can be very costly. Others attempt to recycle the CO2 and to convert it into useful products like fuel or plastic. This capture and utilization approach, or CCU, also uses energy, and the CO2 can only be captured from factories directly, where it has a high concentration in the exhaust, like e.g. 50%. Some engineers have created machines to directly capture CO2 from the air, but to date the process is very expensive, as only 0.04 % of the air actually consists of CO2. So in most cases the most effective way is to either avoid the production of CO2 in the first place (e.g. by using less energy, less goods, or by using renewable energy), or by recycling CO2 (and, even more specifically, recycling biomass-based CO2).
Does eForFuel count as a carbon capture and utilization project?
Yes, if eForFuel manages to bring its concept to scale, its technologies can be used to capture CO2 from industrial exhaust and utilize it for the production of fuel.
Is the CO2 taken directly from the air?
No, to date, it’s very expensive to capture CO2 directly from the air. Only 0.04 % of the air actually consists of CO2, while in industrial exhaust the CO2 concentration can be as high as 50%, making it more efficient for recycling.
What are hydrocarbon fuels and what is the difference between renewable and recycled?
Hydrocarbon fuels are called that way, because they consist of hydrogen (H) and carbon (C). They are produced from crude oil and are the primary and main energy source for any current civilization on the planet. Crude oil (fossil fuel) is not a renewable material or energy source.
Renewable hydrocarbons are hydrocarbons generated from renewable sources.
The eForFuel project uses CO2 from the steel industry as one of its main ‘ingredients’, which is not renewable. This CO2 is recycled using electricity and genetically engineered bacteria in order to make fuel again.
The process, at least currently, does not yet come full circle. That means the resulting fuel is not totally renewable, since it is based on renewable energy and recycled CO2 from fossil fuel, so the eForFuel products can be categorized as recycled carbon fuels. However, completely renewable fuels could be obtained, by using CO2 from biomass sources.
Does this already work?
The technical steps have been shown to work by themselves in some measure in the laboratory, but they have not been shown to work all together, and therefore not on an industrial scale. The research project aims at improving capability, maturity and performance in order to bring the process closer to the market. As long as renewable sources cannot be used for everything we need in our lives, the technology could help to significantly reduce the impact fossil fuels have on the planet.
Do engines that use fuel made with eForFuel technology produce CO2?
Yes, because eForFuel products are designed as drop-in fuels, meaning they should be ready to go in conventional internal combustion engines. As a result the fuels are burnt and produce CO2 again. However, this is CO2 that was previously captured, and hence no ‘additional’ or ‘new’ CO2 is released.
What other possible applications or products could eForFuel develop?
Chemicals produced renewably from CO2 and electricity could also conceivably be used to produce plastics (and textiles), food and animal feed. Single cell proteins, for example, come from edible microorganisms, which can be produced using recycled CO2.