“Bans Are Not the Answer.”
A Conversation With Professor Stefan Pischinger
There is no climate neutrality without synthetic fuels, says Professor Stefan Pischinger, a leading expert on fuels and combustion and head of the Chair of Thermodynamics of Mobile Energy Conversion Systems at RWTH. We recently spoke with him about fuel cells and synthetic fuels, openness to technology, or his greatest wish for politicians – and we asked him what kind of car he drives.
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In recent weeks and months, we have seen quite a heated discussion about a ban on internal combustion engines. What is your expert opinion on this issue?
Prof. Stefan Pischinger: As a scientist, I am generally not a big fan of all-out bans. Being open to all options and technologies has always helped us to find the best solutions for different applications. In my opinion, policymakers should create the right incentives and conditions to help us achieve our goal – in this case, CO2-neutral mobility or CO2-neutral energy supply in general.
What alternatives to the gas-powered engine are already available?
Prof. Pischinger: Many alternative engine types are already in use: Electrically powered vehicles or hybrid drives that combine combustion engines with a battery. Then there are hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles and internal combustion engines that run on synthetic fuels or hydrogen. All systems but the internal combustion engine running on hydrogen are already available on the market. If we want to reach our CO2 targets, we must use every option at our disposal.
Where are we now as far as researching and providing substitute fuels go?
Prof. Pischinger: Substitute fuels are a good cue, because the engine is not the problem. The problem is the fossil fuels – that they emit CO2 that did not previously exist in the atmosphere. So now we need to produce CO2-neutral fuels at low cost. Prototype facilities for this already exist, in Chile, for example. Here, hydrogen is produced by way of electrolysis fueled by wind energy. The hydrogen is then combined with CO2 from the atmosphere to produce methanol. Methanol can already be used as a fuel but can also be processed further, eventually providing us with synthetic gasoline. This is already happening and working.
What do you see as the engine of the future and what will we be driving soon?
Prof. Pischinger: We will need more than one technology because there will be different use cases. As far as large ships go, we will still have to rely on the combustion engine for a long time. When we look at passenger cars, the battery will be mainstream – especially if the electricity is generated in Germany. And in commercial vehicles, we will see both batteries and fuel cells, as well as engines running on hydrogen and synthetic fuels. This competition between different technologies is also healthy because it varies depending on the use case. If you need very high performance or long ranges are required in areas without infrastructure, or there is little time for a refueling stop for electric recharging, then chemically bonded e-fuels or hydrogen are your go-to fuels.
What is the focus of your research?
Prof. Pischinger: We are looking at all types of propulsion, engines running on synthetic fuels, hydrogen, fuel cells, and batteries. In particular, we are researching hydrogen because it is a very attractive fuel for internal combustion engines that can help us achieve very low-emission mobility. We are also working on fuel cells that allow this hydrogen to be converted into electricity with a very high degree of efficiency – and which, by the way, are also very quiet. These vehicles are already on the market, as are battery-electric cars. The battery itself is an exciting research topic because we must try to reduce costs and minimize safety risks such as excessive heat generation. These are our main areas of research at the chair; we look at the power engine system in its entirety and at combinations of these systems. A fuel cell is usually combined with a battery, as is an internal combustion engine. That alone shows how important it is that we are open to all the different technological solutions out there.
What are the major challenges at the moment? What is the next step that needs to be taken?
Prof. Pischinger: The point is to always know which technology is currently at which stage of maturity, for example, battery electric vehicles: We already see many of these types of cars available on the market. The aim here is to reduce costs, boost battery performance to have a long service life, and keep the risk of thermal reactions as low as possible. In addition, with battery electric vehicles, we still face infrastructural challenges and need a reliable supply of renewable, CO2-neutral energy. The fuel cell is also ready for the market; here, we must emphasize reducing costs and increasing service life even more. Here, we need to focus on developing the next generation of cost-effective drives with a long service life and even better efficiency. The hydrogen engine is not yet on the market. Intensive research and development activities are now needed to keep pollutants low, achieve a high power density and also increase efficiency.
If you could ask politicians for one thing, what would it be?
Prof. Pischinger: We all need to come together to find a solution – politicians, industry, and science. And my wish is for us to have even more intensive discussions while considering all options on the table and excluding bans if possible. I am more in favor of creating the right incentives and conditions for change – praise is generally better than criticism. You can also use incentives to steer markets and encourage desirable developments. But bans are not the answer.
Do you dare to make a prediction? Where will we be in two or three years?
Prof. Pischinger: Then, at least in the case of battery electric vehicles, we will have cost neutrality compared to today’s cars with internal combustion engines; fuel cell vehicles will be more widely available on the market, including the associated infrastructure. I hope to see two to three times as many hydrogen filling stations in Germany. It will be important to find a way to keep all our options open with respect to technologies in general. We will not achieve CO2 neutrality without synthetic, climate-neutral fuels. After all, the existing fleet is already so large that we will have 1.4 billion cars on the road in 2030 powered by internal combustion engines.
Does this issue need to be discussed more on an international level?
Prof. Pischinger: Yes. I am convinced that only an international effort can and will lead to the solution to the problem. Germany currently imports 70 percent of its total energy, for example, in the form of oil, gas, and coal. If renewable energies are to be used in the future, it makes sense for them to come from the countries that currently export fossil fuels – because these are usually also countries with a lot of sun and wind. And avoiding CO2 is a global challenge anyway.
Is it an advantage that e-fuels, for example, could come to us from these countries via existing transport routes?
Prof. Pischinger: That's right. If we generate renewable electricity in Germany, it is best to use it straight for electric vehicles; there is no question about that. In sunny countries, you get three times the amount of electricity from a photovoltaic system. If I have three times as much electricity for an identical investment, I can accept some conversion losses to transport the energy to Germany, Europe, or the world. The costs for this approach are also more manageable. With production in these countries, we forecast fuel prices of one euro per liter. It also makes a lot of sense when looking at the overall energy supply.
We have already mentioned the international aspect. How important is it for researchers to work across disciplines?
Prof. Pischinger: In research, we have been well-connected internationally for a long time. Scientists collaborate internationally, and we also look for solutions internationally. And, of course, we also watch how research is carried out in other countries. In China, for example, intensive research is continuing into the combustion engine with alternative synthetic fuels. The topic of methanol, in particular, is being looked at intensively there, but of course, also fuel cells with hydrogen. This means that we are not only internationally networked in research but also have a lively exchange regarding the market situation and political framework conditions in other countries.
Your research topic has significant social and political relevance. Can you work in peace?
Prof. Pischinger: Oh, who wants to do research in peace and quiet? In research, we are constantly under pressure – in a positive sense. Research is basically designed for the longer term, but even though this is the case, we are not only under pressure to publish papers but also to derive short-term findings – address the low-hanging fruit, if you will, solutions that can be adopted quickly in the market. One example is our hydrogen emerging technologies cluster, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the clusters4Future initiative. Designed for the medium term, it also produces results in the short term. And clearly, if we're talking about hydrogen, there's already pressure. But knowing that what you are researching is needed and has a positive impact – namely, to reduce global warming – certainly has a positive and motivating effect.
And finally, what kind of car do you drive?
Prof. Pischinger: In the city, I use an electric car – I have a small E-Smart with a small battery, which also has a lower CO2 footprint in production. Then we have a fuel cell vehicle here at the chair that I like to use. For very long distances, I sometimes still drive a diesel – hopefully, soon, it will be powered by synthetic fuels.