The world's leading e-fuels developer HIF Global this week signed an agreement with Japanese companies Idemitsu Kosan and Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) for an ambitious plan to capture CO2 from industries in Japan and ship it to sites in Australia, Chile and the US — to combine it with green hydrogen to produce “carbon-neutral” fuels.

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But when asked about how much carbon dioxide would likely be emitted by the CO2-carrying vessels and the cost of shipping the greenhouse gas across oceans, HIF repeatedly declined to direcly answer Hydrogen Insight's questions.

While the first methanol- and ammonia-fuelled ships are already taking to the water, with many more on order, the vast majority of vessels are likely to continue to use fossil-based fuels for the next decade.

When asked if only carbon-neutral fuels would be used in shipping the CO2 to HIF’s sites or transporting e-fuels back to Japan, the developer avoided the question, telling Hydrogen Insight: “This week’s MOU [memorandum of understanding] is a significant starting point for further discussions and analysis in Japan. HIF Global and its partners will work closely together to explore the best options for the region and how to remain carbon neutral.”

HIF is currently developing the following projects in Australia, Chile and the US:

  • A 1.4-million-tonnes-a-year e-methanol facility in southern Texas using 1.8GW of electrolysers;
  • A 20-million-gallons-a-year (75 million litre) e-gasoline project in Tasmania with 300MW of electrolysers, which has been shortlisted for subsidies from the Australian government;
  • A 175,000 tonnes-a-year e-methanol plant in Chile with 242MW of electrolysis capacity.

The distance as the crow flies between Japan and these sites exceeds 10,000km, 17,000km, and 8,700km, respectively.

Since Japan has few promising sites for economically viable, large-scale carbon storage, shipping CO2 and storing it elsewhere could represent an option to decarbonise hard-to-abate heavy industries.

But this also raises questions as to whether there were not any closer sites for the CO2 to be shipped — particularly since the gas is set to be used as a feedstock, rather than permanently sequestered.

For comparison, Norway’s government-funded Longship project aims to ship liquefied CO2 from industrial emitters to a site on the country’s western coast for subsea storage, with 127.8 million tonnes of the gas expected to be stored over the project’s 40-year lifetime.

Longship estimates that 91% of its expected 3.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions over this period will come from transporting the gas — a fair trade-off for permanently sequestering around 42-times as much of the gas.

But many of these emitters, such as the Norcem cement plant in Brevik, are located in the east of Norway, with the ships only set to travel 700km to an onshore terminal.

But millions more tonnes of CO2 would almost inevitably be emitted per year when transporting the gas across thousands of kilometres of open water.

And since the end-product releases the greenhouse gas back into the atmosphere once burned, this raises the question as to whether these extra shipping emissions will tip the balance from “carbon neutral” to adding significantly more CO2 into the atmosphere.

However, a spokesperson for HIF argued that “our eFuels are around 94-96% carbon neutral, when you include CO2 transport from Japan to Australia; and our final product from Australia back to Japan, it is 93-95%”.

When asked to clarify whether these numbers refer to proportion of CO2 captured versus emitted during production, or lifecycle emissions reduction compared to conventional fuels, the developer declined to respond.

It is also unclear how the extra cost of transporting the carbon feedstock, rather than using CO2 piped in from local industries, could nudge up the final cost of methanol or gasoline produced by HIF.

The California-based company made its first commercial shipment of green hydrogen-based e-fuel in November last year, sending 24,600 litres of synthetic gasoline from its Haru Oni pilot project in Chile to the UK for use by luxury car company Porsche, which owns a 12.5% stake in HIF.