Carbon-neutral fuels can refer to a variety of energy fuels or energy systems which have no net greenhouse gas emissions or carbon footprint. One class is synthetic fuel (including methane, gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel or ammonia) produced from sustainable or nuclear energy used to hydrogenate waste carbon dioxide recycled from power plant flue exhaust gas or derived from carbonic acid in seawater. Other types can be produced from renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric power plants. Such fuels are potentially carbon-neutral because they do not result in a net increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases. Until captured carbon is used for plastics feedstock, carbon neutral fuel synthesis is the primary means of carbon capture and utilization or recycling.
To the extent that carbon-neutral fuels displace fossil fuels, or if they are produced from waste carbon or seawater carbonic acid, and their combustion is subject to carbon capture at the flue or exhaust pipe, they result in negative carbon dioxide emission and net carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, and thus constitute a form of greenhouse gas remediation. Such power to gas carbon-neutral and carbon-negative fuels can be produced by the electrolysis of water to make hydrogen used in the Sabatier reaction to produce methane which may then be stored to be burned later in power plants as synthetic natural gas, transported by pipeline, truck, or tanker ship, or be used in gas to liquids processes such as the Fischer–Tropsch process to make traditional fuels for transportation or heating.
Carbon-neutral fuels are used in Germany and Iceland for distributed storage of renewable energy, minimizing problems of wind and solar intermittency, and enabling transmission of wind, water, and solar power through existing natural gas pipelines. Such renewable fuels could alleviate the costs and dependency issues of imported fossil fuels without requiring either electrification of the vehicle fleet or conversion to hydrogen or other fuels, enabling continued compatible and affordable vehicles. A 250 kilowatt synthetic methane plant has been built in Germany and it is being scaled up to 10 megawatts.
Carbon-neutral fuels are synthetic hydrocarbons. They can be produced in chemical reactions between carbon dioxide, which can be captured from power plants or the air, and hydrogen, which is created by the electrolysis of water using renewable energy. The fuel, often referred to as electrofuel, stores the energy that was used in the production of the hydrogen. Coal can also be used to produce the hydrogen, but that would not be a carbon-neutral source. Carbon dioxide can be captured and buried, making fossil fuels carbon-neutral, although not renewable. Carbon capture from exhaust gas can make carbon-neutral fuels carbon negative. Other hydrocarbons can be broken down to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide which could then be stored while the hydrogen is used for energy or fuel, which would also be carbon-neutral.
The most energy-efficient fuel to produce is methanol, which is made from a chemical reaction of a carbon-dioxide molecule with three hydrogen molecules to produce methanol and water. The stored energy can be recovered by burning the methanol in a combustion engine, releasing carbon dioxide, water, and heat. Methane can be produced in a similar reaction. More energy can be used to combine methanol or methane into larger hydrocarbon fuel molecules.
Researchers have also suggested using methanol to produce dimethyl ether. This fuel could be used as a substitute for diesel fuel due to its ability to self ignite under high pressure and temperature. It is already being used in some areas for heating and energy generation. It is nontoxic, but must be stored under pressure. Octane and ethanol can also be produced from carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
All synthetic hydrocarbons are generally produced at temperatures of 200–300 °C, and at pressures of 20 to 50 bar. Catalysts are usually used to improve the efficiency of the reaction and create the desired type of hydrocarbon fuel. Such reactions are exothermic and use about 3 mol of hydrogen per mole of carbon dioxide involved. They also produce large amounts of water as a byproduct.
Nighttime wind power is considered the most economical form of electrical power with which to synthesize fuel, because the load curve for electricity peaks sharply during the warmest hours of the day, but wind tends to blow slightly more at night than during the day. Therefore, the price of nighttime wind power is often much less expensive than any alternative. Off-peak wind power prices in high wind penetration areas of the U.S. averaged 1.64 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2009, but only 0.71 cents/kWh during the least expensive six hours of the day. Typically, wholesale electricity costs 2 to 5 cents/kWh during the day. Commercial fuel synthesis companies suggest they can produce gasoline for less than petroleum fuels when oil costs more than $55 per barrel.
The U.S. Navy estimates that 100 megawatts of electricity can produce 41,000 gallons of jet fuel per day and shipboard production from nuclear power would cost about $6 per gallon. While that was about twice the petroleum fuel cost in 2010, it is expected to be much less than the market price in less than five years if recent trends continue. Moreover, since the delivery of fuel to a carrier battle group costs about $8 per gallon, shipboard production is already much less expensive.
A 250 kilowatt methane synthesis plant was constructed by the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research (ZSW) at Baden-Württemberg and the Fraunhofer Society in Germany and began operating in 2010. It is being upgraded to 10 megawatts, scheduled for completion in autumn, 2012.
The George Olah carbon dioxide recycling plant operated by Carbon Recycling International in Grindavík, Iceland has been producing 2 million liters of methanol transportation fuel per year from flue exhaust of the Svartsengi Power Station since 2011. It has the capacity to produce 5 million liters per year.
Audi has constructed a carbon-neutral liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Werlte, Germany. The plant is intended to produce transportation fuel to offset LNG used in their A3 Sportback g-tron automobiles, and can keep 2,800 metric tons of CO2 out of the environment per year at its initial capacity.
Commercial developments are taking place in Columbia, South Carolina, Camarillo, California, and Darlington, England. A demonstration project in Berkeley, California proposes synthesizing both fuels and food oils from recovered flue gases.
Carbon-neutral fuels might lead to greenhouse gas remediation because carbon dioxide gas would be reused to produce fuel instead of being released into the atmosphere. Capturing the carbon dioxide in flue gas emissions from power plants would eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions, although burning the fuel in vehicles would release that carbon because there is no economical way to capture those emissions. This approach would reduce net carbon dioxide emission by about 50% if it were used on all fossil fuel power plants. Most coal and natural gas power plants have been predicted to be economically retrofittable with carbon dioxide scrubbers for carbon capture to recycle flue exhaust or for carbon sequestration. Such recycling is expected to not only cost less than the excess economic impacts of climate change if it were not done, but also to pay for itself as global fuel demand growth and peak oil shortages increase the price of petroleum and fungible natural gas.
Capturing CO2 directly from the air or extracting carbonic acid from seawater would also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the environment, and create a closed cycle of carbon to eliminate new carbon dioxide emissions. Use of these methods would eliminate the need for fossil fuels entirely, assuming that enough renewable energy could be generated to produce the fuel. Using synthetic hydrocarbons to produce synthetic materials such as plastics could result in permanent sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere.
Some authorities have recommended producing methanol instead of traditional transportation fuels. It is a liquid at normal temperatures and can be toxic if ingested. Methanol has a higher octane rating than gasoline but a lower energy density, and can be mixed with other fuels or used on its own. It may also be used in the production of more complex hydrocarbons and polymers. Direct methanol fuel cells have been developed by Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to convert methanol and oxygen into electricity. It is possible to convert methanol into gasoline, jet fuel or other hydrocarbons, but that requires additional energy and more complex production facilities. Methanol is slightly more corrosive than traditional fuels, requiring automobile modifications on the order of USD $100 each to use it.
In 2016, a method using carbon spikes, copper nanoparticles and nitrogen that converts carbon dioxide to ethanol was developed.
Investigation of carbon-neutral fuels has been ongoing for decades. A 1965 report suggested synthesizing methanol from carbon dioxide in air using nuclear power for a mobile fuel depot. Shipboard production of synthetic fuel using nuclear power was studied in 1977 and 1995. A 1984 report studied the recovery of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel plants. A 1995 report compared converting vehicle fleets for the use of carbon-neutral methanol with the further synthesis of gasoline.