Someone is making electrofuels happen, skeptics or not, and Texas appears to be in contention for the e-fuels capital of the world. The latest addition to the Lone Star fold is South Korea’s SK Trading International, which has just invested a nice chunk of change in the US company Infinium.
What Are Electrofuels?
Think of electrofuels as a shortcut to biofuel and you’re on the right track. The idea is to combine hydrogen and carbon without sucking up a lot of energy to grow crops, harvest them, and process them into fuels.
The Energy Department’s cutting edge funding office, ARPA-E, took a dip into the world of electrofuels from a microbiology angle about 12 years ago.
“ARPA-E’s Electrofuels program is using microorganisms to create liquid transportation fuels in a new and different way that could be up to 10 times more energy efficient than current biofuel production methods. ARPA-E is the only U.S. government agency currently funding research on electrofuels,” they enthused back in 2010.
“Electrofuels bypass photosynthesis altogether by utilizing microorganisms that are self-reliant and don’t need solar energy to grow or produce biofuels,” they added. “These microorganisms can directly use energy from electricity and chemical compounds like hydrogen to produce liquid fuels from carbon dioxide (CO2).”
Who Killed The Electrofuels?
Well, that was then. The Electrofuels program launched with an ambitious suite of a dozen or so projects including some of the top research universities in the US. The Energy Department’s national laboratories were also represented, along with the firms Gingko Bioworks and OPX Biotechnologies.
That seems to be the extent of ARPA-E’s interest. Of late, Gingko has been powering its engineered miccroorganisms through other fields. The company seems to have shelved its electrofuels work, at least for now.
OPX was acquired by Cargill in 2015, and Cargill also seems to have moved on, along with the rest of the world. If anybody out there can find word of a microorganism-based electrofuels R&D program that is ready to launch into commercial production, drop us a note in the comment thread.
New Electrofuels Rise From The Ashes
That was not the end of electrofuels. The search for a shortcut to biofuels continued, and something happened after 2010 that made all the pieces come together. The cost of renewable energy fell, and that opened the door to an industrial-style system that cuts microorganisms out of the picture.
“Electrofuel (e-fuel) uses green electricity to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, and combines and processes this hydrogen with carbon dioxide to produce gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel,” Infineum explains.
That’s basically it. “Electrofuels — here defined as fuels made from electricity, water, and carbon dioxide — can potentially help manage variations in electricity production, reduce the need for biofuels in the transportation sector while utilizing current infrastructure, and be of use in sectors where fuel switching is difficult, such as shipping,” wrote a research team in a 2019 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
If you caught that thing about “potentially,” that’s the tricky part. In 2019, commercially viable electrofuels seemed to be far off in the future.
Another analysis, published in the same journal last year, compared the cost of electrofuels with petroleum fuels that are offset by direct air capture and carbon sequestration. That doesn’t seem like such a steep hill for electrofuels to climb. However, the study concluded that electrofuels will be doing a lot of hill climbing in the near future.
“This optimization-based techno-economic analysis suggests that using today’s technology, hydrocarbon electrofuels would cost upward of $4/liter of gasoline equivalent (lge), potentially falling to $1.7–1.8/lge in the next decade and <$1/lge by 2050. Only in the latter case are electrofuels potentially less costly than using petroleum fuels offset with DAC with sequestration,” the study observed.
SK Taps Texas For E-Fuels Tipping Point
Studies or not, policymakers and renewable energy stakeholders are already banking on electrofuels to help power the sparkling green economy of the future. In particular, Europe has become a hotbed of e-fuels activity, with an assist from a 2018 update to the EU renewable energy directive. Offshore wind power in the Baltic Sea has also lured e-fuels stakeholders to the Baltic states.
Over in Texas, the electrofuels field could get real crowded, real fast. Texas already has all the infrastructure needed to support liquid fuels, including long distance pipelines, refineries, and seaports.
A new e-fuels facility in Matagora County under the umbrella of HIF Global is already in the works through the company’s US branch, and Infinium sparked some excitement on the Intertubes last February when it hooked up with the Texas firm Denbury on an e-fuels venture in Brazoria County.
The addition of both Denbury and SK Trading to the electrofuels club is an interesting development in the energy transition. Denbury is an oil producer and so is SK Trading’s parent, SK. From that perspective, the venture into e-fuels territory appears to be little more than an exercise in carbon offsetting. However, both companies are angling for a lead position in the low-carbon economy. By getting ahead of the electrofuels pack, they can create financial space in which to shed their fossil assets. Whether or not they will is another matter.
Texas At The Crossroads
For that matter, SK is already looking beyond Texas. “SK Trading International (SKTI), a wholly owned subsidiary of SK Innovation, announced today it has closed a round of institutional funding into Infinium, a clean fuels innovator. The investment will support acceleration of Infinium’s commercial developments globally,” the company stated in a press release earlier this month.
That global outlook is probably a wise move. Policymakers in Texas declared war on women long before the US Supreme Court did its part in the Dobbs case, more recently they have been casting the stinkeye on financial firms that support ESG policies, and now any idiot is entitled to run around the state with a gun.
The green hydrogen pathway has unlocked energy potential all across the US, not just in states with fossil reserves. If the environment for environmentally and socially responsible businesses dries up in Texas, plenty of other US states are waiting in the wings to take its place.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image (screenshot): E-fuels facility courtesy of Infinium.
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