The Future of Decarbonised Transport

From private vehicles to heavy machinery, aircraft, and sea-going vessels, one question that figures prominently is how we can continue to drive, haul, fly, set sail or take trains in a decarbonised economy. 

Government incentives and mandates are accelerating the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), yet some barriers remain, including cost and range anxiety. Although technology has greatly improved over the last ten years, ongoing research from chemical engineers is focused on reducing costs, improving efficiency and enabling rapid recharging of EV batteries. 

Decarbonising heavy vehicles is not quite as advanced, with the weight and size of batteries limiting the potential of electric trucks. Chemical engineers continue to investigate alternative fuels, including their safe and economical manufacture.  

Electric fuels (e-fuels, also sometimes known as synthetic fuels) use green hydrogen and CO2 to form a hydrocarbon with zero net greenhouse gas emissions. Although technology is still in its early phase of development, e-fuels could make a significant contribution to zero carbon transport systems, and not just in heavy haulage, but in aviation, one of the most energy-intense forms of travel. 

A carbon neutral maritime industry is similarly reliant on alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, ammonia or LOHC (liquid organic hydrogen carriers). Chemical engineers are developing safe and efficient methods to manufacture and handle these fuels. Another chemical engineering innovation, the hydrogen fuel cell, has potential in trains, both long distance and local.   

Successfully decarbonising our transport networks will rely on further innovations of chemical engineers, coupled with good policy to provide incentives for upscaling and implementation of these technologies.