With the Technology Platform Power-to-Liquid Fuels, TPP for short, the German Aerospace Center (DLR – Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt) is building a research and demonstration facility in Leuna, Saxony-Anhalt, that is unique in terms of both form and size – with funding support from the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV).
The focus is on technologies and large-scale processes to produce electricity-based fuels – also known as power-to-liquid fuels (PtL) – swiftly on an industrial scale. On 16 October 2023, the DLR presented the planning for the facility in Leuna, which is to be built from 2024 on a site covering just under five hectares.
The BMDV has made up to 12.7 million euros available for this planning phase. Approval for the implementation phase, amounting to a mid-three-digit million euro sum, is expected at the end of the year. Operation of the research facility is initially planned until 2035, and continued operation beyond this date is also envisaged. Approximately 100 jobs will be created in the areas of construction, plant operation and research.
“Air transport is indispensable in a free and globalised world. That is why electricity-based fuels are an important building block in making mobility of the future more climate and environmentally friendly. With the TPP, the DLR will develop and demonstrate the necessary technologies together with renowned industrial companies and research institutions in order to create the basis for industrial production. This will create unique know-how with which we will further strengthen Germany as a technology and business location,” remarked DLR Executive Board Chairperson Prof. Dr.-Ing. Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla at the event held in Leuna.
Daniela Kluckert, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport: “With the technology platform for power-to-liquid fuels funded by the BMDV, the world’s largest research facility for the production of PtL fuels is being built in Leuna – which is located at a site with a great industrial tradition in the heart of the German federal republic. This is not only a distinction for the region, but for Germany as a whole as a centre of science and industry. We want to lead the way internationally and create optimal conditions for the market ramp-up of electricity-based fuels. The new research facility will make a decisive contribution to the development and application of technologies for the industrial production of electricity-based fuels. The establishment of the technology platform is a significant milestone on the road to achieving sustainable and environmentally compatible mobility.”
Minister President of Saxony-Anhalt, Dr. Reiner Haseloff emphasised: “Saxony-Anhalt is the ideal location for the technology platform on electricity-based fuels. We have a modern and efficient chemical industry with over a hundred years of experience. We are leaders in the use of renewable energies and are home to outstanding research institutions. The technology platform is an important building block for successful structural change in the region. In the coming years, Saxony-Anhalt will lay the essential foundations for shaping the energy transition in Germany. This is something we can be proud of.”
“The industrial landscape and the professional infrastructures and services at the Leuna chemical site will help pave the way for renewable fuels to move from the pilot plant into practice,” explained Dr. Christof Günther, Managing Director of the site operator InfraLeuna GmbH. “The selection of the Leuna site from among more than 60 applicants by DLR motivates us for further transformation towards sustainability and the active linking of research, development and industrial practice. This means that alongside the field of biotechnology, the Leuna site will also be a technology operator in Europe in another promising field of chemical production,” continued Christof Günther.
Largest research facility for large-scale industrial production of electricity-based fuels to date
The PtL technology platform comprises two plant strands that are designed to build on each other: The demonstration strand focuses on the campaign operation of a semi-industrial plant for the production of electricity-based fuels. The capacity is up to 10,000 tonnes per year. Currently, this would make the TPP the world’s largest research facility in the field of electricity-based fuels. With the demonstration strand, the researchers are investigating how production processes can be scaled up to a semi-industrial level as efficiently as possible and how operating parameters can be optimised.
The TPP demonstration strand will initially produce hydrogen from renewable electricity and water by means of electrolysis. The electricity will originate exclusively from renewable sources such as wind and photovoltaics and will meet the strict sustainability criteria of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II). If needed, the hydrogen is to be stored temporarily in large storage tanks with a capacity of 24 hours of full-load operation. It will then be converted into a synthesis gas using carbon dioxide from the air and from biogenic sources – such as from biogas plants or biomass boilers. This is to be followed by the so-called Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. In this process, which has already reached industrial maturity, a synthetic, electricity-based crude oil is obtained from the synthesis gas. Due to the different chemical composition, the processes of petroleum refining cannot be directly transferred to the synthetic, electricity-based crude oil obtained from renewable resources, so-called syncrude. Therefore, the subsequent processing into standardised fuels must also be adapted and optimised to the syncrude. The fuels obtained can then be used in particular for climate-friendly aviation as well as shipping and ground-based transport.
Meanwhile, in the research strand – which is to have an annual capacity of 100 tonnes – DLR is working with science and industry to further develop innovative technologies and test new approaches to improve production processes and fuel properties. It is also investigating how electricity-based fuels can also be produced on the basis of “green” methanol.
Fuel design: Targeted development of fuels also reduces non-CO2 effects
Electricity-based fuels have the potential not only to save large amounts of CO2, but also to significantly reduce the so-called non-CO2 effects. These include the emission of nitrogen oxides, soot particles or water vapour. In aviation, the climate impact of the non-CO2 effects is currently significantly greater than the climate impact of the CO2 released. For example, soot particles and water vapour can cause contrails in the atmosphere, which have an additional warming effect. In this context, electricity-based fuels offer another advantage: that of so-called fuel design. This means that the chemical composition of these fuels can be optimised in such a way that, for example, no more soot or fine dust is produced during the combustion process.
What are electricity-based fuels?
Electricity-based fuels – also commonly referred to as e-fuels or power-to-liquid (PtL) fuels – are liquid fuels. They are produced using carbon, for example from the air, and hydrogen, which is obtained by electrolysis. When the electricity used is produced via renewable resources such as wind or solar energy, the fuels produced in this way are climate-neutral. This means that they only release as much CO2 during the combustion process as was previously bound during their production.
In the long term, many mobility sectors will become dependent on large quantities of liquid energy sources. These areas will particularly include aviation and shipping, but also such vehicles that cannot easily be electrified because of their heavy weight and the long distances they are required to cover.
An additional advantage of electricity-based fuels is that existing infrastructure and vehicles or aircraft can largely be used for transport, distribution and storage.
The Technology Platform for Power-to-Liquid Fuels project, TPP for short, is being funded with a total of 12.7 million euros by the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport as part of the overall Renewable Fuels Concept. The development platform for PtL fuels is being coordinated by NOW GmbH and implemented by the project management organisation VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH.