The debate around eFuels is growing, but choosing a position is not at all simple, especially on the matter of climate change. Can we employ artificial intelligence to clear our heads and take better decisions for the future of our planet?
eFuels could save the world (?)
One of the major worries of environmental activism in the last few decades has been finding renewable energy sources and developing them to replace non-renewable ones. On this matter, development and major investments in the eFuels area may appear an incredible advancement, the solution we needed in one of the most polluting sectors of modern human life. Nevertheless, to properly mitigate climate change so that the next generations will still be able to drink water, or live free from the fear of having to survive, news and choices must be interpreted with a certain level of intelligence, at times artificial.
But let us take one step at a time.
What are eFuels?
eFuels of electrofuels are those fuels produced from sources of renewable energy. When we go to the petrol station to refuel our cars, whether it is a LPG, gasoline or diesel engine, what we put in the tank is always a derivative of crude oil. Crude oil is extracted from the Earth’s depths and is the result of thousands of years of decomposing animal and plant matter exposed to high temperature, high pressures and lack of oxygen. Together with coal and natural gas, crude oil contains the carbon and the hydrogen necessary for producing energy. These are the three fossil fuels and, intuitively, they are not infinite.
The near totality of the life cycle of such fuels has negative consequences on the environment. From the extraction that disrupts the terrestrial ground, to the pollution caused by its production, combustion and waste, the whole chain contributes to climate change. That is why the shift from non-renewable to renewable energy sources is an ever-present, fundamental goal of environmental associations, activists and movements.
The turning point of eFuels is exactly here, as their production does not require fossil fuels. Renewable energy is used to carry our water electrolysis, which separates the liquid into its fundamental components: oxygen and gaseous hydrogen. Subsequently, the hydrogen is combined with either carbon dioxide or ammonia, following different procedures that lead to the creation of fuels whose composition is entirely similar to traditional fuels, but that are created from renewable sources.
At first, we might feel as though our work is done: one of the most polluting sectors, that of fuels, finally has the means to enact carbon neutrality. As the eFuels Alliance claims, starting from renewable energy and compensating through the use of Co2 naturally present in the air during production, it is possible to create eco-friendly fuels that we can already use in the same care we have in our garage, as they are perfectly compatible with it.
But if we seek true climate action, that is honest and aware, we have to dig under the surface of good news such as this one. Unfortunately, what we may find doesn’t always correspond to the enthusiastic Eureka! with which we greeted the innovation.
The debate on eFuels
The origins of electrofuels date back to 2009, with the American ARPA-E or Electrofuels Program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Here, the first studies on fuels coming from renewable energy sources took place. If the agency later shifted its interest towards other topics, international interest kept rising globally throughout the following decade. The peak was reached in the last few years, with massive investments from large automotive companies such as Audi and Porsche.
At the European level, we can observe an interesting debate surrounding the effective role of eFuels. On one side we have FuelsEurope, that represents 41 businesses that manage refineries in Europe. On the other side, Transport & Environment is a group that has been dedicated to making European decisions and law-making greener for the past thirty years, by means of campaigning and scientific research.
After FuelsEurope long supported the incredible value of eFuels, anchoring a large part of its future plans and vision to these sustainable fuels (see their Vision 2050), T&E decided to put its claims and research results to test. The outcomes that were published on December 6th, 2021 were very different. In fact, according to T&E and the research entities that support their observations:
- Vehicles propelled by eFuels produce as much Nox (Nitrogen oxides) as vehicles propelled by conventional fuels.
- Burning electrofuels produces up to three times the amount of carbon monoxide compared to fuels produced from fossil fuels. Moreover, eFuels generate twice as much ammonia, which can combine itself to other particles and constitute a significant risk for our health (asthma, heart problems, cancer).
Given the apparently sustainable nature of the eFuels production, experts point to how this might be a subterfuge to justify the production, also extremely costly, of fuels that don’t necessarily do what they boast regarding climate change. Among other things, in fact, this technology is also extremely exclusive in terms of price: over a period of five months, using eFuels on our car could cost us up to 10 thousand euros more than the usual fuels. An increasingly less appealing option for the common consumer.
Just three days after T&E’s accusations, FuelsEurope replied with a press release where it accused the group of improperly analysing their data, as eFuels were proven to be in line with European standards. The Co2 produced, in fact, would be far less than T&E’s estimates, whereas general emissions of an eFuels-propelled vehicle would be 50% less than with conventional fuels. This means that all of the other toxic substances that T&E had pinpointed (ammonia, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons) were drastically reduced by between 40% and 95%.
FuelsEurope’s answer did not go unnoticed. On December 12th, T&E replied with a document where, one by one, every claim by FuelsEurope was dismantled. They proposed the same data, made stronger by further observation and verification. Moreover, T&E stressed how their intent was not to verify FuelsEurpe’s compliance with European requirements and standards. Instead, their aim was understanding to what extent eFuels were better than conventional fuels. If an extremely costly technology is implemented with the aim of saving the world, the benefits expected from it have to be concrete and tangible, right?
Not really. According to T&E, in fact, the conclusion stays the same: conventional vehicles propelled by eFuels produce more Co2 and more toxic gases. Generally speaking, the benefits for the climate will in fact be inferior, for a technology that will necessitate an enormous amount of renewable energy to be produced. Would it not be better, then, to just employ such renewable energy for the electric car?
Who are we rooting for?
While observing the debate between FuelsEurope and T&E, we might feel like we are watching a tennis match between champions, where it is almost impossible to understand who is playing better. While we observe the ball (the future of our planet) bouncing back and forth, we might ask ourselves: who are we rooting for? Moreover, the fact that two institutions with large funds and means to conduct sound scientific research come to such different conclusions is suspicious. The fact that there are no eFuels available for outside testing on the part of the scientific community at large is suspicious. The fact that both parties continue to have extremely contrasting opinions, with little or no common grounds, again, is suspicious.
Who, then, should we trust?
The question of the eFuels is emblematic of a dynamic we find too often in the debate on climate change. Since problems are observed from a certain angle (fuels pollute because they are produced from fossil fuels, so fossil fuels are the issue that needs solving) the solutions found are only partial (emissions and GHGs are just as much if not more). Changing point of view also changes the bias towards data and disharmonic research on the same problem leads to discussions that go round in circles and are practically impossible to end. The interest is not on climate change anymore, but on being right at all costs, with the only effect of losing more precious time.
We need another kind of intelligence for climate change: artificial intelligence
What we are missing is an overall view, the ability of factoring in all the variables of a certain phenomenon and putting them into the same mathematical operation, in the same decision-making process. For complex issues such as climate change, all this falls outside of what the human mind, or a group of human minds, are capable of. Our intelligence, although extremely refined, has its limits.
But this can be a turning point, the moment in which another kind of intelligence comes into play: the artificial one. In Spindox, we have continuously been advocating for this: a correct use of technology and artificial intelligence is what can make us go beyond our limits, what can help us transform our future into something better by correcting the mistakes of the past. If applied faithfully, technology is what takes us to the next level, transforming us from thinkers to super-thinkers, from calculators to super-calculators. From heroes to super-heroes.
That artificial intelligence might safeguard climate and environment, though many have previously made similar claims. Starting from McKinsey, which envisions a true necessity on the part of future actors for the implementation of a “climate technology” on the road to decarbonisation. Algorithms and artificial intelligence will have to be used with agility and acumen in order to keep the logic and logistics of innovation in check, to make change more accessible and to create that sense of cooperation which we are lacking now, but that seems to be the fundamental component for reaching a definitive solution.
Artificial intelligence, climate change, and potential
There are a variety of ways in which artificial intelligence and automated learning can help us become better players for climate change. From forecasting natural disasters to streamlining electricity consumption and GHGs production, from designing more sustainable cities to optimising renewable energy usage, the applications are limitless. Even at the level of decision support, artificial intelligence can help us become better, greener decision-makers.
Despite the energy requirements for running the computational centres and the costs, both economical and environmental, connected with the storing and elaboration of data, the implementation and the mass adoption of artificial intelligence could be a much smarter alternative to concentrating our attention on specific subjects such as fuels, with the only results of reaching contrasting and incomplete conclusions. Especially when there are already operative guides on the directions to take towards the convergence of technology and decarbonisation in the next 25 years.
Climate change in Italy: Expo Dubai and sustainability
This is the time to act. We have the technologies, we have the intelligence (human and artificial) and we have the willpower. In Italy, too, we are witnessing a growing interest in sustainability and the conservation of the environment. According to the EIB Climate survey up to 81% of Italians believe governmental measures for the safeguard of the environment should be increased. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of Italian sentiment:
- 91% feel that climate change has an impact on their everyday lives.
- 88% believe that tackling climate change and its consequences is the biggest challenge of the 21st century.
- 72% would welcome a tax on products and services that contribute most to global warming.
- 55% think their country will fail to drastically reduce its carbon emissions by 2050.
But something is moving at the national level. Since February 8th, sustainability is now a part of the Italian Constitution. A rise of awareness, a re-elaboration of objectives, performances and calculations in light of the most important variable for us, citizens of the third millennium – the environment.
Even the Italian contribution to the Expo is green-themed, with a pavilion that brings together the concepts of beauty and sustainability. Built around the principle of circular architecture, the roof is made of three large, upside-down hulls that will be re-used to build boats once the Expo is over. The walls composed of ropes in recycled plastic allow for the desert air to circulate. This, together with water walls that cool the area by means of evaporation, make the pavilion fresh and ventilated without the need of air conditioning. This is particularly remarkable, if we consider that current temperatures in Dubai may rise up to 40°C. One of the main themes of the events hosted in the pavilion is climate change, to further underline something that, as a population as well as a country, we are feeling more and more strongly: we are ready.
We are ready for a sustainable change. We are ready to fill our lives and lives of future generations with intelligent beauty. We are ready to reach grand results in a sustainably intelligent way.