It’s an age-old science proven in photosynthesis and the engineering feats of previous decades – and Zero Petroleum believes synthetic hydrocarbon fuels could hold the key to near-term decarbonisation.
Zero Petroleum is a new enterprise dedicated to the production of ‘net-zero’ petroleum-based products.
The company is the brainchild of Paddy Lowe, co-founder and Director, and formerly the executive director of the Mercedes Formula One (F1) team, and his business partner Professor Nilay Shah, Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College.
They believe society has gained immeasurably from the unique advantages of hydrocarbons, and the vision now at Zero Petroleum is to be a prime constructor of a fully circular and carbon-neutral supply at scale.
Lowe left F1 two years ago after a career spanning more than 30 years, including two separate spells at the Williams team, 20 years as a key technical figure at the McLaren F1 team, and of course his years at the all-conquering Mercedes F1 team.
Together, he and Shah have been working on a synthetic fuel at Zero Petroleum for a year now, the process behind which is synthesis through the recycling of water and carbon dioxide, using renewable energy such as green hydrogen.
Zero Petroleum already has a tangible product to showcase, as Lowe demonstrated on camera during an exclusive webinar-interview with gasworld, and is focused on the next steps ahead – not least finding the right partners for green hydrogen supply and other aspects of the value chain.
And the company is in no doubt that such synthetic fuels could hold the key to near-term decarbonisation and a long-term window of breathing space for the scale-up of renewables.
So what is the science behind this ‘net zero’ petroleum and how might that prospect look?
Lowe explained that we can create the petroleum fuels we so rely upon in a circular manner, rather than in a linear manner drawn from finite reserves, through synthesis – or more specifically ’petrosynthesis’ as he has termed this process.
Creating synthetic petroleum would ‘complete the circle’ he said. “Currently we consume but we don’t create; therefore industrially, when we add in the creation side, we can have a circular carbon system.”
This would be a carbon cycle in the industrial system in the same way that we have carbon cycle in the biological system. “Such a system is indefinitely stable, just as biology has been stable,” he added.
The chemistry behind petrosynthesis, the industrial equivalent of photosynthesis, is simply reversing the process of burning, as Lowe has had to explain to many a sceptical member of the public.
“For most members of the public, they’re not aware of it,” he said.
“When I show them samples of (synthetic) fuel, and this is very high-octane fuel straight out of the reactor, they look at me like this is alchemy! “You can’t do that!” And then of course you explain that this is simple chemistry, you’re simply reversing the process of burning, it’s simply the equivalent of what happens in photosynthesis, which we all understand. And then the minute you explain that, the question becomes, well when can I have it?”
Lowe continued, “I think it will take off, I think it will capture the imagination of influencers and decision-makers; there are various impediments, particularly around cost, and those need to be worked through, but the technology is very old and established.”
The carbon element of the synthetics equation would be harnessed using carbon capture from Direct Air Capture (DAC), another proven and increasingly established technology.
Just as the science is well established, so too are the potential wealth of applications.
Applications of such fuels would include aircraft, performance vehicles and motorsport but would not be limited to conventional transport – these synthetics would also be used for huge mining equipment, combine harvesters and many other agricultural vehicles that are characterised by increasingly high density and require a liquid fuel to match.
“A machine that’s called a forager, for example, is a harvester that cuts up crops like maize for cattle feed and a typical forager runs at around 1,000 horsepower – that’s more power than an F1 car and running constantly at full power,” Lowe explained.
“There are no corners to lift off throttle, as you would have in a racing car! So this machine runs flat out, perhaps on a 14-16 hour shift, and it’s not driving on a road, it’s driving on soft ground, so it’s very difficult to conceive of how you might electrify this kind of machine with batteries which are 50 times the weight of diesel.”
“Hydrogen shouldn’t be ruled out in that type of application, but clearly to replace like-for-like with a synthetic diesel would be a perfect solution – and certainly with the existing capital assets that are out there all across the world.”
“That is another factor that we have to consider,” he continued, “not just the end point but the transition. We live in a world with a huge capital base around fossil fuel solutions, and we mustn’t forget the amount of energy required to convert to a new pathway that’s better. We also need to consider the roll-out and the phasing of that.”
When it comes to mining equipment and the kind of ‘huge trucks the size of your house’ for example, Lowe believes these machines are a better example of the transition – whereby these vehicles could feasibly last 50 years [in service] and when adding up the numbers, “it’s probably better to invest in synthetic diesel for such a vehicle rather than say, I’m going to throw it away and start again with a different fuel system.”
Aircraft are another often-cited application, with Lowe explaining that current projections pitch synthetic fuels as being far better suited to long-range flights than either battery-electric power or hydrogen fuel.
“A 777 aircraft will fly typically between 15-16 hours in every 24-hour period, so spending most of its time in the air. At current efficiency levels, which will improve, a solar farm of around eight square km would supply that plane with fuel continuously,” he said. “It would keep that plane in the air with a synthetic kerosene.”
“Eight square km sounds like a lot, and as I said I think that number will come down over time, potentially even halved, but the land require doesn’t have to be high-grade, it can be done in uninhabitable parts of the world. Deserts, for example – it doesn’t require fertile ground. There are also almost limitless opportunities for offshore wind power.”
“In my view, there will absolutely be a day when your flight will be 100% fuelled by a synthetic – that might be hydrogen for shorter range flights or for longer range flights, it will absolutely be synthetic kerosene – 100% and not a blend. We’ll be able to say the same for our fuelling forecourts with cars.”
Why synthetic petroleum is key…
There are two further arguments that Zero Petroleum believes make the case for synthetic fuels.
Firstly, that the energy transition will require at least three key ‘media’ and there is currently too much weight given to an electrification route which is so often found wanting in efficiencies and inherent limitations.
Secondly, the company points to the way in which synthetic petroleum would enable us all to effectively continue to lead the kind of lives we are accustomed to and so enjoy.
“At the moment, what I see is rather too much focus on electrification,” Lowe opined. “Yes, we need to do it, it requires a lot of mind-changing, and we’ve got to turn the investment in that direction and I totally support that, but I think it’s rather too blinkered and simple-minded at the moment and not recognising the vast range of solutions that we need.”
He continued, “The other point to bring up is sheer enjoyment of life; the climate crisis is a crisis, it’s an emergency and we really have to put our best foot forward into that. As an engineer myself, I believe engineers are the ones to solve it and they know how to do it, they just need support from government and from finance to take it forward.”
“But often when you look into this sector it’s all doom and gloom and very depressing, and about how we have to stop doing this and stop doing that. We live in a world well-populated with humans – and humans don’t always do what we want them to do. Mostly they want to enjoy life; we want to have fun. One of the nice things I find very positive about working in this synthetic petroleum sector is, we can maintain that feeling that there’s a possibility of still enjoying things and doing things that entertain and give some reward.”
“When I see climate deniers for example, sometimes I wonder if that’s denial that supports a mindset – a mindset of wanting to carry on doing the things that they enjoy. I think that’s more common than we realise, and I think therefore that it’s the job of government, primarily, to support engineering to deliver those solutions.”
Of those solutions, clearly Lowe and Zero Petroleum believe that synthetics are the most advantageous and immediately beneficial.
“We see hydrocarbons as the ultimate in terms of energy density, short of nuclear power of course, so the most demanding applications will require hydrocarbon fuels, such as aviation.”
“I think it’s a very necessary fuel and as I earlier explained, I see electrification, hydrogen and hydrocarbon fuels as the three channels for the energy transition.”
Paddy Lowe was speaking to gasworld in an exclusive webinar broadcast on gasworld TV on Friday 11thJune (2:30pm BST).
In a wide-ranging interview with Rob Cockerill, Lowe discusses synthetic petroleum, the scale-up of alternative fuels, policy and politics, fuels for the next generation of motorsport, and even his favourite races from his more than 30 years at the sharp end of F1.
For more information and how to watch the webinar, including on-demand access, visit www.gasworld.tv.