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Decarbonization of the transport industry has been gaining more and more traction over the past years and months, and sustainable fuels are playing an increasingly important role. So now is a perfect time to check your understanding and knowledge about bio fuels, synthetic fuels, and the latest fuel products.

Sustainable fuels are currently regarded as the optimal solution to accelerate true decarbonization of air and ocean transport, two of the so-called hard-to-abate sectors which lack a straightforward route to green transition.

With this broad level of acceptance, the sustainable fuel market is starting to develop and many new activities are being driven by various industry players, including DHL Global Forwarding. This article provides a useful summary of fuel types and fuel products, concluding with some very useful links to further reading. 

Tracing the Origins of Fuel

Currently available fuels can be divided into three types, which reflect their origin:

  • Fossil fuels are produced from crude oil. Combustion of the fuel adds CO2 to the atmosphere. Previously, this CO2 was captured in the fossil remains of ancient species and buried for millions of years. This means additional CO2 will accumulate in the atmosphere when released from fossil remains.
  • Biofuels are produced from biomass, mostly organic waste (e.g. used cooking oil). Combustion of this fuel releases CO2 as well, but only the exact amount that was captured by the biomass during its lifecycle. This means no additional CO2 will be released to the atmosphere and this type of fuel is considered carbon neutral.
  • Synthetic fuels (or e-fuels) are produced from electricity and gas. This type of fuel is carbon neutral if green electricity is used and the required gas (e.g. CO2) is captured from the atmosphere or from biogenic sources. Also use of unavoidable industrial CO2 emissions such as from cement plants can be considered green. 

Sustainable and Available

Both biofuels and synthetic fuels are considered to be sustainable fuels but they differ in terms of their availability. Right now, biofuels are the only commercially available option but it isn’t possible to scale organic materials such as crops and waste to the size needed to decarbonize the entire transport industry. Greening cannot continue on this basis alone.

However, the world is not yet able to supply green electricity in sufficient quantities to produce enough synthetic fuels. This is going to take more time but eventually it will be practical to scale output. This is why synthetic fuels are expected to be the best option in the long term. 





No Modification Required 

As we know, fossil fuels can be used to make multiple different fuel products; for example, kerosene to power airplanes, diesel to power trucks, and gasoline to power cars. It’s the same with biofuels and synthetic fuels; for example, biofuels can be used to make biokerosene and synthetic fuels can be used to make e-kerosene. 

One of the reasons why biofuels can be easily adopted today is that kerosene (from fossil fuels) and biokerosene (from biofuels) have very similar properties. This means they can be used in the same engines; there’s no need for engine development, conversion, or modification. These sustainable fuels are called drop-in fuels. 

On the other hand, there are several non-drop-in fuels and, before these can be used, they require modification to existing engines and infrastructure. One example is liquefied natural gas (LNG). Having said that, the logic remains entirely the same. Any engine or infrastructure supporting fossil LNG today can easily switch to accept bio-LNG or e-LNG without further modification. 

At-a-glance Comparison

The matrix above provides a useful at-a-glance comparison of the different types of fuel and fuel products. While fuel origin determines the sustainability of the fuel, it is physical and chemical fuel characteristics that determine the applicability. 

Pros and Cons

Each fuel product has its individual advantages and disadvantages, and it is unclear today which ones will predominate for which modes of transport. What’s clear, however, is that sustainable fuels will help to truly decarbonize the transport sector and all industry players need to work together to accelerate the development and deployment of these fuels. 

Find Out More About Sustainable Logistics

Join us on the journey towards sustainable logistics! Here are some useful links to read more on these important topics.

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Read about how insetting can advance the decarbonization of global freight.


Read about how non-fossil fuels are starting to green every transport mode.


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