"Climate Neutrality in the Transport Sector Would Be Possible More Quickly"

Powertrain expert Prof. Gutzmer would like to see more technological openness, a focus on e-fuels and hybridization and greater involvement of the existing fleet

Which engine concepts will power the vehicles of tomorrow, what role will combustion engines and synthetic fuels play in the future - and how can the goal of climate neutrality in the transport sector be achieved as quickly as possible? These are the questions that concern Professor Dr. Peter Gutzmer. The head of the International Engine Congress (February 27 and 28, 2024, Baden-Baden) is one of the world's most renowned experts for drive systems. In this interview, the long-standing manager, honorary and visiting professor (Karlsruhe, Shanghai, Chengdu) and Chairman of the Board of the FVV e. V. research association answers key questions that the Engine Congress 2024 will also address in detail.

Prof. Gutzmer, how do you assess the strong focus on battery electric drives with regard to achieving the CO2 targets?

Prof. Gutzmer: It will not be possible to defossilize the entire transport sector in the foreseeable future simply by electrifying the drive system. Even if the political target of 15 million electric cars in Germany by 2030 were to be met – which is currently highly doubtful – we would still only have achieved half of the climate targets in the transport sector. The goal of reducing CO2 to the statutory interim targets through to CO2 neutrality will not be possible if the existing fleet is not included and balanced across all sectors.

Consumer uncertainty, high inflation, economic challenges and a lack of acceptance of the e-mobility system as a whole mean that existing vehicles are currently being used for even longer. The average age of the fleet in Germany is already over eleven years, and it is not uncommon for cars to be driven for 18 to 20 years, according to an FVV survey on the vehicle population in 2020. We are talking about over 48 million cars in Germany, over 330 million in Europe and over 1.4 billion vehicles worldwide, and the trend is still rising. Without combustion-powered vehicles running on non-fossil fuels, we cannot even begin to achieve climate neutrality – definitely not quickly enough. In addition, we will continue to launch new vehicles with hybrid drives in the growing markets for many years to come.

What could a faster route to defossilization look like?

Prof. Gutzmer: The industrial research association FVV e. V. has dealt intensively with this question. The results of the study make it abundantly clear that the rapid achievement of climate targets in the transport sector depends very much on the technology paths chosen to achieve them. With technological openness, a rapid reduction in CO2 in the transport sector in Europe would be possible relatively quickly. However, this requires the existing fleet to be included in the measures as quickly as possible with cross-sectoral balancing and promotion.

A central point of the study is that the mix of so-called regeneratively generated electricity and biomass-based fuels, i.e. non-fossil-based carbon-hydrogen transformation pathways, enables a faster transition to greenhouse gas neutrality than the politically desired, one-sided focus on battery-electric new cars. To this end, the study recommends the development of a technology mix with an increasing admixture of non-fossil fuels – in addition to electrification. With the right political decisions, it would be possible for Europe's transport sector to become completely climate-neutral by 2039. However, we would have to use all options to achieve this: Electromobility, e-fuels, biofuels, methanol-to-gasoline (MtG), hydrogen burners, fuel cells, hybrids. A recent study by the VDI also comes to similar conclusions.

So, among other things, do we need more effort and investment in the further development and production of synthetic fuels on an industrial scale?

Prof. Gutzmer: Absolutely! In fact, it is incomprehensible to me that the use of CO2-neutral fuels based on biomass and renewable electricity continues to be politically hindered in Europe and Germany. Blending with advantageous tax considerations would be a good start to give the market for defossilized fuels the opportunity to develop step by step.

Global trends show that high volumes of synthetic CO2-neutral fuels will be available on the market in the next six to eight years. But not in Europe. In Japan, for example, the topic of defossilization is being pursued pragmatically, open to technology and not ideologically. According to the plans there, e-fuels will play an important role in the Japanese automotive industry's economic policy strategy. In the USA, too, major investments are being made in the course of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to develop an rE-Fuels infrastructure. I would like to see something similar in Europe.

Investments in the production of CO2-neutral fuels on an industrial scale will only be made if there is certainty regarding the long-term nature of the political course. One major advantage is that the transportation and distribution of e-fuels can be easily achieved using the existing infrastructure. Above all, major investments are required in green energy generation and in the facilities for producing the fuels.

Do these e-fuels necessarily have to be produced in Germany and Europe? What do you say to critics who argue that this would be far too expensive?

Prof. Gutzmer: Defossilization is a global challenge, as the international community noted in the final protocol of COP28 Dubai, so we should approach the solution accordingly. For example, it makes much more sense to generate e-fuels using solar and wind power in sunny and windy regions of the world. This makes them much more efficient than it would be possible in Germany. Electricity costs, an important cost factor, are significantly lower there. The example of Porsche together with Volkswagen Group Innovation, the e-fuels company HIF Global and MAN Energy Solutions shows how this can be achieved in an initial pilot plant in Patagonia. Extensions of these concepts are being developed in the USA, Asia and the MENA region. The production of H2 in mega-electrolysers is already being implemented worldwide, but further innovations are still required for the provision of CO2 via Direct Air Capture.

On a global scale, it makes no sense to store and transport energy in the form of electrons. Europe, and Germany in particular, will remain energy importers. The necessary transportation of green energy to Europe will be much easier and more effective in the form of molecules. We can rely on existing, proven and reliable transportation chains. I therefore expect the costs of these fuels to be competitive in the future.

So, in your view, the electrification of the drivetrain is not enough to solve all the economic, ecological and social challenges associated with the mobility of tomorrow?

Prof. Gutzmer: That is correct. However, the exclusive focus on the electric car in this form can only be seen in Europe. The strategies of Asian manufacturers, for example – both in Japan and China – are clear: the mobility of tomorrow will rely on a variety of drive systems and fuels, adapted to the respective requirements of the regional markets.

Purely electric drives have their raison d'être and make sense in urban areas in particular, but they are not the optimal solution for every application. Instead, the combustion engine will continue to power a large proportion of vehicle fleets – albeit with CO2-neutral rE fuels and hybridized. The hybrid combines two technologies that complement each other perfectly. Japan is clearly following this path, as is China.

What specific strategies is Japan pursuing?

Prof. Gutzmer: Japan has succeeded in closely interlinking science, research and business. Following the declaration "Achieving a carbon-neutral and decarbonized society by 2050", the "Green Growth Strategy" was defined. Within this framework, the Green Innovation Fund focuses on the development of technologies that contribute to future carbon neutrality – including synthetic fuels. In Japan, there is talk of a necessary CO2 recycling cycle.

The Japanese government has set up an organizational unit called NEDI at the METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) for this purpose. In addition to the latest generation of nuclear power generation and electrochemical storage technologies, this unit also promotes the rapid industrialization of hydrogen and (non-fossil) green energy molecules derived from it.

In view of these global trends, what do you think needs to happen in Europe and Germany?

Prof. Gutzmer: Politics and industry must urgently change course! We are currently doing too little to achieve the goal of climate neutrality in the transport sector in the foreseeable future. At the same time, we are jeopardizing the competitiveness of our automotive industry and the jobs associated with it.

The World Climate Change Conference in Dubai has once again clearly shown that the world is taking a completely different approach to the major issues of the future than Germany and Europe. On the contrary, resistance to the German path is growing rather than diminishing.

One of the fallacies in this country is that individual mobility can be significantly reduced in the coming years. In fact, mobility will continue to grow on a global scale - a fact that politics and industry in Asia, for example, are very aware of. This is why we need technologies that will lead us to climate neutrality in the transport sector more quickly. Individual mobility is and will remain a basic need of affluent societies. Without the future inclusion of the combustion engine with increasingly defossilized fuels, there will therefore be no sustainable climate protection, which we will discuss in detail at our 11th VDI/ATZlive International Engine Congress in Baden-Baden.

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Source: Prof. Dr.-Ing. Peter Gutzmer

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Peter Gutzmer

Powertrain Expert and head of the International Engine Congress