HIF: Can wind, water and air be combined in a new energy revolution? This Chilean startup wants to find out

HIF’s “Haru Oni” project is a 3.7-acre, $ 55 million site designed to demonstrate a viable commercial process to transform wind, water and air into synthetic fuels that can be used to power everything from cars to ships to aircraft, while reducing carbon emissions. .

The project consists of a wind turbine, a carbon capture system and facilities that it says are capable of producing 130,000 gallons of fuel a year, and the project is still under construction but is scheduled to become operational later this year and begin producing synthetic gasoline.

HIF’s manufacturing process uses wind-generated electricity to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is captured from atmospheric air and industrial sources. Hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide and synthesized into eFuels.

Meg Gentle, CEO of HIF USA, said the process can be used to create all kinds of everyday fuels, including methanol, propane, gasoline and jet fuel, which can be used by standard engines without modification. “Basically, anything that could be refined from crude oil could also be made this way,” she said.

Much of the focus for decarbonization of transportation has been on the production of electric vehicles (EVs). Gentle argued, “we do not need eFuels to compete with EVs,” and suggested EVs and eFuel could coexist – the latter helping to accelerate the decarbonisation of the transportation sector while using existing cars and infrastructure such as pipelines and gas stations.

But producing eFuel is currently very energy intensive, making it more expensive than gasoline. A liter of diesel equivalent of eFuel costs almost $ 6 before tax, according to a 2019 paper from the British Royal Society Scientific Institute, although it depends on the price of electricity.
The hydrogen that HIF will use is known as “green” hydrogen – hydrogen generated from renewable sources, as opposed to “gray” hydrogen, derived from fossil fuels, or “blue” hydrogen, which uses non-renewable resources such as gray hydrogen , but captures most carbon emissions during production.
HIF describes its eFuels as carbon neutral because their combustion releases the same carbon dioxide that was captured in the manufacturing process. Gentle framed the process as a “CO2 recycling system.”

“The environmental credibility of projects like this depends on the processes used and sources of CO2,” said Anna Korre, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Imperial College London.

“If the CO2 input is captured from the atmosphere and renewable electricity is used, the fuel will be close to zero (net carbon emissions),” explained Mark Barrett, professor of energy and environmental systems modeling at the UCL Energy Institute.

Gentle said the Chile plant will use a “very small amount” of waste CO2 generated by local industry, along with a majority from direct air-carbon capture. Korre said a life cycle assessment of the product would be needed to back up any claims of carbon neutrality.

eFuels and the transport sector

For the Haru Oni ​​plant, HIF collaborates with, among others, Siemens Energy and Porsche. Siemens Energy will receive around € 8 million ($ 9 million) to support the project from the German government as part of its national hydrogen strategy. Porsche is investing around € 20 million ($ 22 million) in the project and will buy e-petrol produced by Haru Oni ​​for use in its motorsport fleet.

In addition to light transport, green hydrogen-based fuels can help heavy transport become more sustainable, while current electric battery technology does not pack enough power to burn cargo ships and commercial aircraft.

HIF is already exploring synthetic jet fuel – the eKerosene – and is seeking to partner with airlines to pilot the technology. At the same time, Gentle admits that the current process is less efficient than the one that produces HIF’s eBenzin.

Porsche 911 GT3s line up at the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup in Zandvoort, the Netherlands, in 2021. Porsche says they will start using eFuel created by HIF's Chile operation for the race.

“Synthetic fuels have the potential to reduce emissions in transportation areas that are not currently battery-powered,” Korre said. “There are also some sustainability and safety issues related to batteries, including concerns about mineral resource extraction and related pollution that synthetic fuels would avoid.”

“We are seeing a rapid upscaling in scientific and technical efforts, and these are being accelerated by concerns about security of supply around fossil fuels,” she added.

Gentle spoke at a panel at the World Government Summit in Dubai on March 28, where David Livingston, senior adviser to the United States’ special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, said the increased price of natural gas as a result of the Ukraine conflict could accelerate more activity in the US hydrogen energy sector.

Expansion of the eFuel industry

HIF’s demonstration plant will be able to produce 1,000 barrels of e-gasoline a day, Gentle said. It pales in comparison to its long-term plan for 12 commercial-sized factories spread across Chile, the United States and Australia at a cost of $ 50 billion. Each plant would be able to produce 14,000 barrels a day. To do so would require 2,000 megawatts of power and capture about 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, she explained.

An aerial view of the construction site, including the foundation of its wind turbine.

At some point in this significant upscaling, Gentle says production costs will be reduced to the point where HIF will be competitive with fossil fuel prices. She compared the road to the one that was already running on renewable energy as wind power, which needed state support before reaching a turning point.

“Over the course of this decade, we want to be competitive, head-to-head with the fossil-based alternatives,” Gentle said.

Gravity can solve the biggest problem of renewable energy

Barrett remains skeptical that it will be able to do so without outside help. “Zero carbon fuels will always cost much more to produce than fossil fuels,” he argued. “Either emission limits should be imposed on sectors such as aviation or high carbon taxes on fossil fuels or a subsidy on carbon-free fuels or a combination thereof.”

With such magnificent plans and a proof of concept underway, you would be forgiven for believing that HIF sees itself as an energy disruptor.

The HIF director sees it differently. “So many times, disruptors destabilize things until they are newly adopted,” Gentle said. “We see this as more creating an additional stabilizing factor in this journey to decarbonize.”

“This is a win-win for environmental, energy and economic security,” she added.

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