“Getting Physics and Politics Back Into Line”

Wolfgang Maus about appropriate ways of achieving sustainable mobility

Battery electric vehicles are seen as the best answer to sustainable mobility. In the automotion interview, Wolfgang Maus, former CEO of Emitec, disagrees. He feels combustion engines powered by synthetic fuels are the better option, both in ecological and economic terms. And he makes a clear case for re-focusing the debate on scientific facts.

Mr. Maus, you criticize the current debate about sustainable mobility. What do you dislike about it?

Maus: What bothers me most is the fact that the discussion is not honest and fails to capture the entire picture. All considerations should proceed from the Paris Agreement of 2015 – in other words, from the aim of limiting global warming from carbon-dioxide emissions to a maximum of two degrees. Yet the political debate surrounding different forms of mobility is based on different standards. For the combustion engine, considerations calculate “well-to-wheel” CO2 emissions, in other words all emissions from producing the fossil energy sources to fuel consumption while driving. With battery electric vehicles, analysis only goes from the power socket to the wheel. But it would make more sense to look at the entire life cycle – i.e. “cradle to grave”, which covers every aspect from extracting the raw materials to recycling. That, in my view, is the only yardstick that gives an honest picture, and is also right in terms of the Paris Agreement.

So, what would a comparison of combustion engine and battery electric vehicle then look like?

Maus: You would immediately see that a battery electric vehicle arrives at the dealership carrying a considerable CO2 burden since the battery has a huge impact on its climate footprint. Extracting the raw materials and manufacturing the battery cells both involve vast amounts of energy which, of course, the “socket-to-wheel” approach completely leaves out of the equation. A Volkswagen expert in life cycle analyses has calculated this effect. Even if an electric Golf were to be powered by nothing but electricity from renewable sources, it would still clock in at CO2 emissions of 50 grams per kilometer. With our present electricity mix, the level would, of course, be much higher.

What in your view would be the better road?

Maus: As a general rule, I would urge everyone to address the subject of “mobility” on the basis of scientific findings because policymakers can’t ignore physics either. For future drive systems, this means that we should place far greater emphasis on synthetic, carbonneutral fuels for combustion engines. The diesel engine, for example, could be fueled on OME (oxymethylene ethers) which produces hardly any particulate matter. In future, this would mean that the compression ignition engine could be operated at a stoichiometric air/fuel ratio which would lead to drastically reduced nitrogen-oxide and particulate matter emissions. In combination with a modern exhaust gas aftertreatment system, the air from the tailpipe would be cleaner than the air the engine draws in. In other words, diesel vehicles could work as air-cleansing systems on four wheels. This, of course, is something a battery electric vehicle is incapable of.

Which other synthetic fuels are of interest in your opinion?

Maus: For the gasoline engine we could use DMC (dimethyl carbonate) and, for fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen from electrolysis based on green electricity. It is also possible to produce synthetic and carbon-neutral natural gas. The key advantage of OME, DMC and synthetic methane is that we cannot only continue to use existing engines and the associated expertise gathered in Germany without any major changes, but also the existing filling station infrastructure. We will only achieve the ambitious CO2 targets for 2030 anyway if the millions of existing vehicles also do their part, which can be done if they run on synthetic fuels. This approach would reflect the spirit of the Paris Agreement and also be an economically sound solution because we wouldn’t have to invest many billions in expanding power grids. Don’t get me wrong: I am not categorically opposed to battery electric vehicles. But we should see them as an addition to the combustion engine and use them where they make sense – e.g. for short journeys in urban areas and for micro-mobility, such as for electric bicycles. This would obviate the need for any hasty and excessively expensive development of our power grids.

A lot of electricity is needed for producing synthetic fuels. Where should it come from?

Maus: This brings us back to the question of politics and physics. One thing is clear, we need electricity from renewable sources, but Germany is not competitive as a location for wind and solar power plants which has immediate implications for us all. The cost of living and our prosperity are directly linked to the price of energy. In the long term, one possible solution could be nuclear fusion, but we still don’t know enough about its costs and residual risks. Until we do, we will need to import electricity from regions where wind conditions and sunshine are better suited to producing green electricity. Among the candidates here are the Maghreb states and Saudi Arabia. The synthetic fuels needed could even be produced there and then shipped to Europe. This is the only solution that makes any macroeconomic sense. A key side effect is that this would integrate these countries into global economic development as well as into the endeavors being made towards achieving carbon-neutral value creation. As I said: We must at long last bring physics and politics back into line with each other.

Mr. Maus, thank you for talking to us!

Wolfgang Maus

Having graduated in mechanical engineering, Wolfgang Maus founded Emitec Gesellschaft für Emissionstechnologie (company specializing in emission technology) in 1986 which he developed into one of the leading suppliers in exhaust gas aftertreatment technologies, employing around 1,000 staff and operating globally. After retiring in 2013, the company was taken over by Continental. Today, Wolfgang Maus is Senior Advisor to the Board of Directors at Continental AG, a member of several supervisory boards and, with his WM Engineering & Consulting company, consultant for restructuring, profit optimization and innovation management. He holds more than 700 patents and was honored with the German Cross of Merit on Ribbon in 2016 for his social commitment in business and for his life’s work.