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ARPA-E’s REFUEL Research Program Focusing on Carbon-Neutral Fuels

10.09.17 | Blog | By:

Can we have “carbon-neutral” internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs)? That was a question I asked in a recent post where I detailed Bosch’s intention to study and develop pilot projects for carbon-neutral synthetic gasoline and diesel in Norway. Another answer has come from a friend with the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) program pointing me to the agency’s $35 million Renewable Energy to Fuels Through Utilization of Energy-Dense Liquids (REFUEL) research program.

Projects in the program are primarily focused upon hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, but nevertheless worth highlighting as well. There has been a perception perpetuated, at least in the media, that EVs have surpassed hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The point of REFUEL is exactly to develop carbon neutral fuels and more specifically to “develop scalable technologies for converting electrical energy from renewable sources into energy-dense carbon-neutral liquid fuels (CNLFs) and back into electricity or hydrogen on demand. ” Hydrogen is not dead.

ARPA-E describes CNLFs and the aim of the REFUEL program as follows:

“Carbon-neutral liquid fuels as defined by REFUEL are hydrogen-rich and made by converting molecules in the air (nitrogen or carbon dioxide) and hydrogen from water into an energy-carrying liquid using renewable power. While existing fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use pure hydrogen as a fuel, the limitations of hydrogen storage and transportation have made it difficult and expensive to build transmission, distribution, and refueling infrastructure for mass adoption of these vehicles.

The CNLFs of REFUEL address these challenges by using the infrastructure already in use by traditional liquid fuels. Once the CNLF arrives at its point of use, it can be used to generate electricity in a fuel cell or produce hydrogen on demand, greatly reducing transportation and storage costs. REFUEL projects will aid in the development of energy sources that are readily produced and easily transported, like ammonia, while reducing production costs and environmental impact. Projects will enable new, efficient, scalable and cost-effective energy delivery when and where it is needed.”

While the Trump Administration initially proposed to eliminate ARPA-E in its initial budget, leaving future programs up in the air and creating tons of controversy in the process, this has all appeared to die down as of late.

The program made its first awards in June of this year and all 16 projects under it are moving forward. Project descriptions are available here.  ARPA-E notes that, “Because of its attractiveness as a hydrogen and energy carrier, most selected REFUEL projects target the production of ammonia or its conversion to hydrogen or electricity. State-of-the-art industrial ammonia production using the Haber-Bosch process requires a hydrogen source (usually natural gas), remains highly capital and energy intensive, and is only economical at a large scale. Many projects seek to overcome these limitations to enable economically competitive, distributed production of this prototypical CNLF.” There is one dimethyl ether (DME) project.

Carbon-neutral and even carbon-negative technologies for vehicles is something I will be continuing to follow on this blog and in more depth for clients of the Future Fuels Outlook service.


Tammy Klein is a consultant and strategic advisor providing market and policy intelligence and analysis on transportation fuels to the auto and oil industries, governments, and NGOs. She writes and advises on petroleum fuels, biofuels, alternative fuels, automotive fuels, and fuels policy.

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