If the root of all our climate crisis woes is a highly engineered ecosystem of fossil fuels built upon hundreds of years, can’t we look to simply re-engineer it in the short-term?

An age-old science proven in photosynthesis and engineering feats of previous decades could hold the key to near-term decarbonisation, and a long-term window of breathing space for the scale-up of renewables.

The roots of that ecosystem are deeply entrenched, and it’s often overlooked that many of the products we rely upon today – from inks, upholstery and toothbrushes to rubber, tyres and soaps – are in fact derivatives of fossil fuel science. The list is exhaustive. Even many of the hand sanitisers and rubbing alcohol that we have turned to during this Covid-19 pandemic will have been derived from petroleum on some level.

Any decoupling from these products was always going to be a huge challenge; the transition deep and resource-intensive. It is perhaps unrealistic to think we could achieve that with renewables alone.

That’s where synthetic fuels come in, and that’s the view of Paddy Lowe, co-founder and Director of Zero Petroleum – a new enterprise dedicated to the production of ‘net-zero’ petroleum-based products.

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Lowe was formerly the executive director of the Mercedes Formula One team, a key figure at the McLaren Formula One team for 20 years, more recently the chief technical officer at Williams Racing, and a widely regarded technical genius of the sport.

Today, however, he is focused on the technical and engineering challenges we face in terms of the climate crisis. Zero Petroleum explains that society has gained immeasurably from the unique advantages of hydrocarbons – its vision now is to be a prime constructor of a fully circular and carbon-neutral supply at scale.

“My view is that the Industrial Revolution isn’t complete, we’ve just started it – so far, we’ve been using this energy and these materials in a linear manner, drawing on the fossil reserves that were put down there hundreds of millions of years ago,” he enthuses.

“We now need to convert our system; we can’t undo it, we have eight billion people on the planet, we can’t go back to nature and we can’t go back to relying on solely biological processes to supply all of this demand. Equally, we can’t demand of whole populations to regress in terms of their standards of living, because that involves so many facets – education, democracy, health, welfare, enjoyment and leisure. These are all things that people want and now expect, and have a right to – and indeed to propagate much more widely than we have today and share it out more equally.”

“So we have to convert this system that we have,” he continues, “which is linear, into a circular system and when it comes to petroleum, which is the foundation of our energy and materials system, we see the pathway to that through synthetics.”

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The synthetics Zero Petroleum is working towards are essentially fuels synthesised through the recycling of water and carbon dioxide, using renewable energy.

“We can create petroleum in a circular manner, rather than in a linear manner drawn from finite reserves, through synthesis,” Lowe explains. “Creating synthetic petroleum will complete the circle.”

“Currently we consume but we don’t create; therefore industrially, when we add in the creation side, which we have called ’petrosynthesis’, 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.”

Lowe explains that we would no longer increase the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which then remains in balance. “We would no longer consume and create waste, which is itself very interesting the more you dig into it,” he adds.

“The concept of waste is to some extent a function of our industrialised system. I believe before the Industrial Revolution, waste wasn’t really a very meaningful concept. It’s only come to light during our current linear system. So, as we move into a circular world, the word ‘waste’ may start to lose meaning because we’ve become part of a cycle. One person’s waste becomes another person’s material.”

“I think in a thousand years’ time they will look back on this period in human history as very much a transition in which fossil fuels were a kind of boot strap, a windfall that allowed us to elevate ourselves to a sustainable and circular system, that enables us to sustain ourselves in balance – and in balance with nature.”

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 energy density.

“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 adds with a smile, in a nod to his former career and enduring passion. “There are no corners to lift off throttle as you would have in a racing car!”

“The significant thing for me is that synthetics are viable at scale. It’s not a small task, it’s not without challenges, but it will actually work…”

Scaling up

Two of the key core factors in favour of such a synthetic route to sustainability, are both speed and scale.

Lowe acknowledges that industrial scale of any new fuel is a ‘very, very important point’ and assures that synthetics are definitely viable at scale.

He told gasworld, “As we look at the energy transition, which is our migration from fossil systems to renewable systems, it’s very important to look at the aspect of scale – and the first point being that the scale of consumption at the moment of fossil petroleum is simply enormous. It’s colossal and, therefore, any substitute needs to meet that level.”

“The significant thing for me is that synthetics are viable at scale. It’s not a small task, it’s not without challenges, but it will actually work, in our view – and we at Zero Petroleum are not the only ones to believe that to be the case.”

“There are reports from respected bodies; Riccardo produced a report, for example, in December which looked at exactly this point, considering Europe as a body. The question was that if all energy has to come from renewables, primarily wind and solar, and this will be consumed through three channels – direct electric, hydrogen and hydrocarbon fuels – then will that scale?”

“The conclusion was that there’s more than enough capacity across Europe to provide renewable energy for the whole market, including the synthetic hydrocarbon component. It also concluded that this couldn’t be met from biofuels and fuels from waste, another pathway to hydrocarbon liquid fuels; they recognise that there will be niche provision from the bio sector, but this will not form part of the core provision in the long-term. There are many reasons for that, not least the quantity of water needed to process these biological fuels.”

“Synthetics, using carbon capture from Direct Air Capture (DAC), is seen as the pathway and it will scale. I can give you some numbers for that, just to give you a feeling: 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 than plane with fuel continuously. It would keep that plane in the air with a synthetic kerosene.”

Aviation is regarded as a lighthouse application for synthetic petroleum, where Lowe believes we will continue to require kerosene ‘almost indefinitely’ until some other as-yet-unidentified technology is developed.

But what of the requirements in renewable energy to feed the fuel’s production – can such demand be sustained for huge numbers of aircraft?

“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 required doesn’t have to be high-grade,” Lowe explains, “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.”

“So scaling is of course not easy, but it’s very feasible in my calculations,” he enthuses.

“About 50% of your renewable energy is lost in conversion to the hydrocarbon liquid, so you’re only going to end up with half of the renewable energy in the liquid fuel. That is the least efficient pathway, but with the most utility – it’s the most energy dense, it’s the lightest and the most versatile in terms of storage and transportation” 

Efficiency is also very feasible, according to Zero Petroleum. Its calculations estimate that the best battery at the moment is around 50 times heavier than its equivalent mass in a hydrocarbon fuel. That means a long-range aircraft simply won’t fly; in a plane, with the amount of power required to fly as a function of weight, that plane simply won’t get off the ground with batteries.

“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,” Lowe says.

“About 50% of your renewable energy is lost in conversion to the hydrocarbon liquid, so you’re only going to end up with half of the renewable energy in the liquid fuel. That is the least efficient pathway, but with the most utility – it’s the most energy dense, it’s the lightest and the most versatile in terms of storage and transportation.”

Lowe acknowledges the role of green hydrogen in this sustainable fuels challenge, describing it as a ‘fantastic chemical’ with ‘rightly a lot of excitement’ around it. He sees trains, buses, trucks, and marine as ‘very good destinations’ for hydrogen as a solution.

Hydrogen is, however, ‘very much in the middle’ according to Lowe, averagely efficient in terms of conversion efficiencies and energy density.

“Overall, what we’re going to see are all three solutions – we need all three in the huge range of applications that we have,” he affirms.

Near-term solution

Of those three, Zero Petroleum clearly believes synthetic fuels are the most viable in the here and now. What could really set synthetics apart from other new, clean fuels is its potential as a relatively near-term solution at scale.

Lowe left Formula One two years ago and set up Zero Petroleum alongside business partner, Professor Nilay Shah, Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College.

Together, they have been working on a synthetic fuel for a year now, and already have a tangible product to showcase, as Lowe demonstrated during our interview with a sample from the lab. “We’ve spent the first year doing some R&D in the lab, we have some very exciting product in terms of gasoline, we’re also working on kerosene for jet fuel, so our next step will be to build a production plant,” he explains.

“We intend in the next year to have a plant, ideally located in the UK, which will be making synthetic gasoline – so that’s a very exciting prospect if we can get it to market as, potentially globally the very first fully synthetic gasoline.”

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A globally rolled-out, made-in-the-UK, synthetic fuel for our energy needs of today and tomorrow? Lowe firmly believes in the prospect, but is also aware of the potential challenges ahead and is actively looking at possible partners and collaboration across the supply chain.

“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.”

“There are new challenges, because the inputs are very expensive, and we are refining the process to make it much more efficient and with higher yields. There is also the challenge of working at smaller scales, and within dynamic contexts, because renewable electricity is variable and intermittent and highly dynamic. So we need to make plants that can manufacture fuels against a more dynamic input; typical oil and gas refineries are working to a constant rate, for example, so we have a new challenge around variability.”

“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.”

“It [synthetic fuel] can be scaled with the primary input from solar and wind, and that simply has to be built. That’s the challenge of the next 20-30 years, but I believe we will do so; I believe we have the ingenuity and resources as a human society to do so.”

“I find that prospect incredibly exciting, because as an engineer I like to see solutions and the more that I’ve looked at the climate crisis, whilst we need to work with urgency, the more I look at the solutions the more optimistic I become.”

Exclusive webinar

Paddy Lowe was speaking to gasworld in an exclusive webinar to be 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