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The Net-Zero race

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In the year 2023, humanity confronts one of its most pressing and formidable challenges: the profound and escalating impacts of climate change.

To avert environmental disaster, our global leaders have set the challenge of being Net-Zero by 2050; a target that aims to completely negate the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) produced by human activity.

The need for sustainable alternatives to replace fossil fuels is unprecedented. Yet, the progress of producing abundant, clean, carbon-neutral and affordable fuel is currently faltering in the face of this demand.

Shipping, aviation and road transport currently account for almost 25% of global emissions and the workhorse powering these sectors is the internal combustion engine — fuelled on by fossil-based hydrocarbons. However, if we are to focus on the aviation industry alone, global aviation fuel consumption is set to quickly return to 2019 pre-Covid levels of 95 billion gallons per annum and keep rising year after year.

It’s clear that, despite mandated targets and initiatives to reach Net-Zero, the aviation industry is showing no signs of slowing down, and there is no viable replacement to the jet-engine for commercial aviation on the horizon.

Currently, it seems as if E-Fuels (“drop-in” replacements for petroleum-based fuels synthesised from sustainable sources of carbon using renewable electricity) offer an optimistic pathway to achieve carbon neutrality. These fuels can be processed in such a way that they closely resemble conventional fossil fuels such as gasoline, diesel or kerosene, and in many cases act as a “drop-in” replacement that requires no major modifications to existing internal combustion systems.

The biggest challenge facing production of E-Fuels is the cost associated with current production methods deriving from enormous power requirements, as well as the challenges of securing carbon sources without generating excess carbon emissions in the process. These challenges raise the question; will E-Fuel production methods reach the economy of scale required to meet the Net-Zero target for aviation and road transport by 2050?

There are many emerging technology developers who believe they will.

Due to the high electricity demands of renewable fuel production, such as green hydrogen, e-fuels, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), etc., as nations aim to reach Net-Zero, they will inherently become larger electricity consumers.

The journey towards decarbonization not only demands advancements in technology, but also necessitates substantial investments with a recognition that these commitments involve a considerable lead time before yielding any financial returns.

Industries like road transport, marine and manufacturing are all grappling with challenges akin to those faced by the aviation sector in terms of sourcing sustainable fuel sources. Given that these feedstocks often overlap, competition for them could impact supply, demand, and consequently, market prices.

The mounting pressure on oil and gas producers to reshape their operations and realign strategies with the principles of a Net-Zero world has intensified.

The oil industry has a history of surmounting diverse challenges, a trait that the burgeoning carbon-neutral sector must emulate. With a track record of venturing into uncharted territories and, more significantly, delivering results, the oil industry stands well-positioned to replicate this success in the carbon-restricted sphere.

Transitioning effectively from fossil-based to carbon-free fuels necessitates not only the advancement of new technologies, but also the refinement of existing ones. Above all, it entails the establishment of numerous substantial process plants, pivotal for various decarbonization pathways.

A valid example of a developing and promising technology for sustainable alternatives which faces substantial and diverse challenges to reach economy of scale is Waste-to-Fuel (Wtf).

WtF is a pathway to SAF production using technologies like gasification and Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis to transform solid waste into a drop-in jet fuel. Feedstocks can be cellulosic waste (forestry/wood/agricultural waste) and Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). These feedstocks are carbon rich and considered a by-product of human activity. In the case of using MSW as feedstock, it offers a highly beneficial multi-pronged approach to tackle the environmental impacts of current waste management practices — by burning carbon rich fractions of household/commercial waste and collecting the synthesis gases (Syngas) that it produces for fuel production; we can reduce the volume of waste going to landfill, preventing subsequent methane emissions, as well as supply a carbon neutral fuel to the transport sectors.

A valuable lesson gleaned from the construction of the large, intricate capital projects undertaken by the oil industry underscores the importance of robust project management in engineering and constructing novel process plants, be it Waste-to-Fuel facilities, E-fuel refineries, Green Hydrogen production sites and more.

The cornerstone of successful project management is meticulous planning and scheduling which has been proven time and again as a fundamental factor in the triumphant execution of large, complex projects or as they are also coined “mega projects” — reminiscent of those achieved in the North Sea during the 1970s. It was there that the oil companies faced “unprecedented engineering challenges” bringing together large structures with oil and gas process plant, drilling rigs, subsea connections and marine operations.

Based on these achievements, we can see the value in the expertise and experience gained from the challenges oil companies and their project engineers overcame to deliver the world's energy needs. This expertise can guide the implementation of carbon-neutral infrastructure development, helping overcome the logistical, economic and operational hurdles slowing down the roll-out of commercial-scale carbon-neutral fuel production projects.

In this article, the central exploration has revolved around the question of how to achieve ambitious 2050 Net-Zero targets, given the historical peak of demand for fossil fuels. With a focal point of discussion on the aviation sector, it has identified the potential for Waste-to-Fuel SAF production technologies to offer a multifaceted approach to reducing GHG emissions in the race for carbon-neutrality.


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