Synthetic fuels. The future of energy


The energy transition, in concrete terms: that’s what Prof. Hervé Jeanmart and his team have been studying at UCLouvain for three years. In 2015, with a consortium of five universities, they responded to Engie's call for proposals on the future of energy and the various vectors that can be mobilised once the energy is stored.

The Flexible eneRgy vEctors of the futurE (FREE) project, concluded at the end of 2018, placed the focus of energy transition research on a subject that is poised to play a major role: storing electrical energy from fluctuating renewable sources. Desiring to go further, Prof. Jeanmart responded to another call for proposals, by the Fonds de transition énergétique du Service public fédérale SPF Economie (‘Federal Department of Economics Energy Transition Fund’), for which he awaits a decision.

‘Coupled with energy storage,’ Prof. Jeanmart explains, ‘the electrification of our consumption is key to the transition, in parallel with the development of other networks such as heat networks and renewable fuel chain networks’. As part of his research, he focused on a particular storage technique: synthetic fuels. This form of chemical storage is used in ‘power to fuel’, a technique that consists of producing fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, methane or methanol from excess renewable energy. ‘This technology is designed to store large amounts of energy in the long term and therefore for systems that have a significant share of renewable production’, he says. ‘The potential of these "electrofuels" still needs to be accurately assessed’.

Unresolved issues

It’s this assessment that the FREE project has undertaken. The first part dealt with energy and the economic costs of producing, storing, transporting and returning the four ‘power to fuel’ fuels; methanol appears to be the cheapest fuel to produce, but ammonia remains competitive. The second part concluded that these same fuels are efficient in a ‘multifuel’ gas engine. A third part explored modified gas turbine cycles for CO2 capture.

Prof. Jeanmart says, ‘Our research goal was to determine how much it costs to produce these electrofuels, and their performance. Engie's funding helped launch two PhDs on these assessments.’ Three years later, the report submitted, questions remain for the researchers. ‘Time passes so quickly! We wanted to go further, hence the response to the FPS Economy call for proposals. We wanted to answer concrete questions for public authorities: What will be the contribution of these synthetic fuels in the Belgian energy system? In our current models, these fuels are necessary if we want to reduce our CO2 emissions in any meaningful way – by 75% at least. We will reach this threshold only around 2030 or 2040 ... But this helps us plan in the long term how to obtain and manage these fuels, which are crucial for our energy future. Will we need to import them or can we produce them ourselves? How do we minimise energy system costs while meeting the needs of citizens? Only research can tell us.’

Marie Dumas

A glance at Hervé Jeanmart's bio

Hervé Jeanmart is a professor at the Louvain School of Engineering and a member of the Institute of Mechanics, Materials and Civil Engineering (IMMC). His areas of research are thermal machines, energy recovery from biomass, and energy systems.

Published on June 06, 2019