November 20, 2022
11 min read

What’s the next step in sustainable aviation? Commercialization.

Marc Engelhardt

E-Fuels not only benefit the environment, says synthetic-fuels pioneer Christoph Weber, but also the reputation of any carrier or logistics company who uses it. Here’s how Weber is using technology to build a path toward net-zero aviation.

Sustainable aviation is possible!

Self-proclaimed “skeptic of conventional wisdom” and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) veteran, Christoph Weber is an outspoken e-Fuel pioneer promoting innovative, green fuel conversion solutions for powering aviation. Weber is the visionary behind fully integrated Power-to-Liquid (P2L) plants. And now, as co-CEO of P2X Europe, he’s using his expertise and insight into technology to outline the future of flight and synthetic biofuels. Are the airlines ready to make the shift? Energy Stories speaks with him at Hamburg Airport in Germany. 

Energy Stories: Dr. Weber, you’ve championed the implementation of e-Kerosene pilot plants even without political support. Why?

Christoph Weber: P2L plants are pioneering projects, ones that have to outpace politics – because it’s the right thing to do. While a supportive policy environment, incentives and decisive action by governments are crucial to ensure the viability of a socially-just transition to climate resilience and net-zero emission, a pioneering entrepreneurial spirit requires a different execution speed. With time-to-market in mind, we can’t afford to depend on any third-party support if this risks delaying the implementation process. Instead, we should basically replace lengthy bureaucratic procedures with speed. If you want to demonstrate that a specific technology solution works, makes sense and can be implemented, you can’t wait for the political framework or public funds – it ties up too much energy and you lose critical momentum.

Commercial flights worldwide have already consumed around 57 billion gallons of fuel in 2021. E-Kerosene can be blended with conventional jet fuel to bring down flight emissions.

So what’s the next step?

Simply put: commercialization. A pilot plant could produce around 350 tons of synthetic crude per year, which equals basically 1 ton or 8 barrels per day. Next on the trajectory is a commercial scale plant configuration in the range of at least 20,000 to 40,000 tons per year. That’s a factor of up to 120. Based on market demand, we would be interested in doing 50,000 or even 100,000 tons, but we’re cautious that all critical input factors are aligned. This includes feedstock supply, technology readiness and the availability of low-cost renewable energy at the right location. We’re also extremely careful with available manufacturing capacities and with the availability of raw materials, like iridium, which is used as a catalyst in PEM electrolyzers. We are continuously monitoring all critical parameters, and we’ve come to the conclusion that an annual production of about 20,000 to 40,000 tons per production capacity is the most realistic size for what will be the largest P2L plant worldwide.

But the market potential is much bigger than that, isn’t it?

Global aviation consumes 1 million barrels of kerosene per day, accounting for about 6 percent of total petroleum consumption. So if we’re producing 20,000 tons, you might think that’s just a drop in the ocean. But bear in mind that e-Kerosene is blended. If we are looking at a blend ratio of 1 to 3 percent, for example, this immediately puts things into perspective.

Why are the airlines interested? Meet the man who wants to make flying carbon neutral.

Which sustainable aviation fuel initiatives show the most promise?

There are a lot of initiatives right now, even from oil majors. Some of them are in panic, realizing that fossil fuels are part of their DNA. Overnight, we’ve started seeing a color-coding game emerge where synthetic fuels are being baptized “green” even though in reality they aren’t. Carbon dioxide is a good example: If the source of CO2 is industrial, it isn’t green or biogenic – it’s grey. The truly distinguishing criterion is to make sure that sustainability is met across all elements of the value chain. Otherwise, you risk your credibility, your reputation – and you miss out on sustainability.

On the surface, the technology concept is relatively simple. All we need are two main ingredients. One is a lot of renewable energy, which is used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Since the energy used to separate the water is renewable, solar PV or wind, it’s called “green” hydrogen, and all we’re doing is matching the green hydrogen with a biogenic source of carbon. So, we basically have two gases that are then converted through a synthesis process into an innovative, very sustainable and ultragreen aviation fuel. The reason why the airline industry is so interested is because there are basically no alternatives. With a GHG emission reduction potential of up to 100 percent, synthetic P2L fuels meet the highest sustainability criteria and in theory are abundantly available. 

Christoph Weber argues: “Our future and potential off-takers, including globally operating logistics companies, airlines, airports and government fleets, can’t afford to compromise on credibility.”

How would you characterize the fuel you’re aiming for?

We’re not accepting any compromise. We’ve realized that our future and potential off-takers, including globally operating logistics companies, airlines, airports and government fleets, can’t afford to compromise on credibility. Markets and end customers begin to understand the quality difference between fuels and synthetic fuels.

Credibility is more important than cost?

Cost isn’t simply about the price difference. Let’s assume a blend of up to 3 percent synthetic crude and a fossil jet blend. The total premium for that will be in the range of 5 to 10 percent. But this premium buys you a reputational gain and a credibility advantage that’s worth much more. Thus, the value for your company is significantly higher. And companies who are doing their homework reach this conclusion quite fast and start chasing us. We don’t have to knock on doors. They’re coming to us.

You are talking about SynZero fuels, but sustainable aviation fuels are around 70 to 80 percent emissions free today.

Greenhouse gas emission reductions in the range of 70 to 80 percent usually refer to the so-called HEFA-SPK (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids) process. This is a relatively old-school standard technology, relying on used cooking oil and animal fats. Our own avenue is completely different. Based exclusively on renewable electricity and biogenic CO2 as feedstock and fuel, synthetic fuels have the potential to be completely net zero. And this additional delta of 20 to 30 percent makes all the difference.

Aviation and climate change: Commercial aviation is responsible for around 2-3 percent of global carbon emissions, with those numbers expected to rise as air travel expands worldwide.

You are co-CEO of a company called P2X Europe. Which role will Europe play in the development you’re describing?

We’ve looked at potential locations worldwide, and what determines the quality of a location for a P2L plant is, first of all, the availability of a lot of affordable renewable energy, like South America, the Middle East or Africa. But obviously you also have to look at sovereign risk financing conditions. And we believe that the EU plays a leading role in putting in place regulatory frameworks like the Green Deal or Fit for 55. These are very favorable conditions for our initial commercial plants. So we’re looking at the Iberian Peninsula, for example, where you have favorable and affordable wind and solar conditions.

The European Commission has proposed to mandate a 5 percent SAF blending quota by 2030. From 2030 onward, they intend to have e - Kerosene makeup between 0.7 and 28 percent of total jet fuel use.

The EU is discussing synthetic air fuel quota of up to 63 percent in 2050. Do you think that’s realistic?

Those beautiful projections describe a destination, but they’re hardly compliant with reality. The quota for 2050 requires more electricity than all the existing nuclear power plants in Europe can supply, for example. That is totally unrealistic, especially since there’s a competition for access to renewable energy. Getting a single-digit figure blending quote in place would already be amazing and better than competing with numbers that you can’t yet commercially justify. Having said that, I’m a friend of quota. I think this is what politics can contribute to create favorable financing conditions.

What else could politics do to speed up the process?

A P2L plant requires access to electricity 24/7, so you need to be connected to the grid. That comes with grid access and grid transmission fees. With hydrogen strategies popping up nationally and in Europe, you shouldn’t have contradictory fees and levies in place. That creates a competitive disadvantage, which ultimately has a negative impact on the levelized cost of production for one unit of synthetic fuel. An exemption from grid fees and certain taxes would help in a transition phase to get P2L plants and the production of synthetic crude up and running – especially in the critical early days of large-scale commercialization. 

Given the strong demand and the political will, what does that tell about investing opportunities?

I would say there’s massive potential. And if you look at investors, government funds, investment banks – even they have to comply with sustainability criteria. One pension and sovereign wealth fund after the other is exiting investments in the fossil sector. What we’re offering is, on a credibility scale of one to ten, a solid ten because we don’t compromise. That makes financing conditions extremely favorable for us. I used to be an investment banker, and honestly, I haven’t seen such a situation before.

How P2L works in a nutshell: Discover more about the key to sustainable aviation.

Why invest in synthetic fuels and not go for hydrogen-powered planes instead? They are currently being developed in Hamburg, for instance.

I believe a hydrogen plane, unless it’s a commuter plane or taxi aircraft with a maximum passenger load of six to eight people, won’t fly within the next 20 to 30 years. Liquid hydrogen fuel has a lower volumetric density than kerosene. Despite the aircraft requiring a lower mass of fuel, the extra space that this fuel would occupy would be around four times larger than that of kerosene, requiring a significant redesign of conventional airplanes. In contrast, synthetic fuels are fully compliant with the status quo we have in place today, including airport infrastructure, fuel tank infrastructure, logistics infrastructure, tank farms at airports, aircraft engines and aircraft design. It’s an innovative but proven technology, tested and globally available. So we’re proposing to use the existing infrastructure with zero change. That’s why it’s called “drop-in fuel”. You just drop it in without having to worry about the complete redesign of a wide-body jet and additional investment like aircraft engine technology.

How important is cooperation with a company like Siemens Energy to reach your goals?

We’re dependent on key technology components, and one of these technology components is PEM electrolysis. In order to deliver workable, reliable solutions, we can’t risk compromising on the quality and performance of our partners. SynFuel solutions have to be technology independent and scalable. Siemens Energy is a proven and tested player and certainly one of the recognized and reputable players in this sector. With their technology, we know what’s in the box.

November, 2022

Marc Engelhardt reports from Geneva on the UN, international organizations, and global developments in the economy, science, politics, and energy. He has worked as a correspondent for numerous media outlets including Neue Zürcher Zeitung, ARD, and Die Zeit.

Combined picture credits: Sebastian Vollmert