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How to Achieve Carbon-Free Shipping: Biofuels and E-Fuels Show Most Potential

DHL’s new “Sustainable Fuels for Logistics” study asserts that the company and transportation industry cannot attain their goals of zero carbon emissions without embracing alternative fuels and energy sources.

“Our aim is to achieve zero-emission logistics by 2050, but this goal cannot be achieved with efficiency measures and a modern fleet alone,” Frank Appel, CEO of Deutsche Post DHL Group, said. “We also need to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean alternative energy sources. This is why strong cross-border and cross-sectoral cooperation between the political, business and scientific communities is so crucial.”

The report notes that while physical logistics networks remain vital, electrification in local transport is already making an important contribution to the achievement of an energy turnaround. However, commercial use of electric drive on long-haul and heavy-duty routes is not yet feasible, the company said.

This is where sustainable fuels play a crucial role as they could be pivotal in reducing the climate impact of transport emissions.

“As part of our zero-emissions strategy for 2050, we are also accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean fuel alternatives,” Appel said.

Key findings of the study are that e-mobility, or electro mobility—the development of electric-powered drive trains designed to shift vehicle design away from the use of fossil fuels and carbon gas emissions—is the technology of choice in the transport sector, but its use is currently restricted to short-range transports. So-called drop-in fuels are compatible with current technology and can replace fossil fuels, while non-drop-in fuels require modified engines or new technology.

According to the study, while the term “alternative” is used for all fuels that are not a part of the fossil fuel group–ie, diesel, gasoline, heavy oil and kerosene–liquefied natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) are considered alternative fuels, even though they originate from fossil sources, making them nonsustainable as a result.

Truly sustainable fuels come from renewable sources, have no negative impact on the environment when they are burned, and do not produce emissions of greenhouse gas.

In addition, second-generation biofuels and e-fuels—gaseous or liquid fuels such as hydrogen, methane, synthetic petrol and diesel fuels that have been generated from renewable electricity—are beginning to gain a foothold but must come from renewable sources. The study warned that production of plant-based biofuels should not lead to the destruction of crop land and rain forests.

The three most common biofuels are biodiesel, bioethanol and biokerosene. Biodiesel is derived from vegetable or animal fats and alcohol. It is generally used as an additive to diesel fuels.

Bioethanol is usually produced through the alcoholic fermentation of corn or grain and is used as an additive to conventional gasoline. Biokerosene, also known as biojet, is produced from vegetable and animal fats.

“There’s a lot to be said for e-fuels,” Dr. Thomas Ogilvie, labor director and board member for human resources and corporate incubations at DHL Group, said. “They can be seamlessly integrated into existing vehicles and infrastructure. At present, however, they are not economically competitive.”

Ogilvie said as with e-mobility, there is still not enough green electricity available to ensure that e-fuel production is truly climate-neutral.

“We believe synthetic fuels will reach mass market viability in the next five to 10 years,” he added. “In our view, progress will depend on a cross-border, cross-sectoral approach and the development of global standards to promote the production and use of sustainable fuels internationally.”

The study concludes that biofuels and e-fuels have the greatest potential to become a sustainable substitute for fossil fuels. A range of alternatives is being developed right now or is already in use, but no comprehensive knowledge base or binding standards have been developed. In addition, feasibility appears to be more a matter of commercial viability than one of technology.

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