Towards a higher penetration of renewable energies in the energy system through power-to-fuel systems

General information

Type: Master project
Period: Autumn 2019
Project directors: Prof. François Maréchal (IPESE-EPFL)
Assistants: Tuong-Van Nguyen, Alessio Santecchia, Theodoros Damartzis (IPESE-EPFL)
Related project: STORE & GOSCCER BIOSWEET – BIOmass for SWiss EnErgy FuTure


Critics of renewable energy often mention the difficulty of integrating intermittent energy sources, as the electrical power grid was designed for large and controllable generators. This grid has very little storage capacity on itself, meaning that the electricity production and consumption should match. These challenges may be overcome with storage technologies, such as batteries, hydroelectric dams or chemical storage.

Power-to-Fuel (PtF) systems allow for storing the surplus of renewable energies on sunny or windy days by the generation of a chemical energy carrier from carbon dioxide (recovered from industrial and waste facilities) and/or biomass. They can therefore contribute to the decarbonisation of the industry and mobility sectors. The chemical energy carrier may be either a gaseous fuel (PtG), such as synthetic natural gas (SNG) or hydrogen (H2), or a liquid fuel (PtL), such as methanol (MeOH) or liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Each fuel may be used differently – SNG may be converted back into electricity in a natural gas fired power plant to generate electricity, or reformed in a fuel cell, when there is a lack of renewable energies. LNG may be used as a substitution fuel in the maritime industry whilst diesel-like fuels may be used to substitute conventional diesel in the aviation sector. Methanol and hydrogen may be used directly as a valuable feedstock in the chemical industry or for electricity generation purposes.

The PtF systems may be deployed as a complement to wind parks for load balancing in the energy grid, or for the generation of valuable chemical products to be used in the industry and transportation sectors. These installations may also be added to bio-refineries or wastewater treatment plants to utilize and convert the carbon dioxide generated by these plants and offset their emissions.

Project description

At present, there is a lack of knowledge and no outcome yet on the exact role of PtF systems in the European regulatory framework. There is a clear need for research into the following areas:

  • Integration and operation optimization of the PtF concepts at the local, national and European levels, considering (i) the impact of local resources (biomass-, solar, wind- and wastewater facilities) and climate conditions, (ii) the specificities of each energy system (sources of energy, import, export of electricity) and associated CO2-emissions, and (iii) the predictions/forecasts of energy demands, weather conditions and impact on renewable energy generation [global energy system level]

Example of possible task: based on the real-time and predicted data for the weather/energy demands/energy supply (imports/exports), develop an algorithm/procedure to assess how power-to-fuel systems should be operated to maximise the penetration of renewable energy and minimize costs/minimize CO2-emissions?

  • Modelling and comparison of power-to-fuel options for energy storage, depending on the CO2-source and possibilities for CO2-utilization, based on thermodynamic (efficiency, heat integration), economic (investment and operating costs) and environmental (emissions) [process and component level]

Example of possible task: develop process models of power-to-fuel systems based on electrolysis, methanation and CO2-conversion systems, investigate their synergies (heat integration), and compare their performances (economic, energetic, environmental).

  • Modelling and reconciliation of specific PtG systems, based on measurements from pilot plants [process and component level], together with the modelling and optimization of the associated processing routes.

Example of possible task: develop a model for controlling the performance of an existing power-to-gas system, reconciliate the data and check the validity of the sensors

The objective of a Master’s project in this field can focus on one of these aspects mentioned above or on several ones. It can consider specific energy sources, countries and processes, or considering all processing routes and performing a systematic comparison.

The thesis will build on the data & experience acquired from the STORE&GO and SCCER BIOSWEET Swiss/European projects, which involve several companies, research institutes and universities.


(depending on the topic and level of study (system, process or component), different weights of importance are given to each aspect)

Knowledge in:

  • Energy conversion systems

(EPFL courses: Thermo I/II, Energy conversion, or equivalent)

  • Chemical processes (basic chemistry courses, or willingness to get some basic/intermediate knowledge beforehand)

Hard skills in:

  • Programming (Python, Matlab or equivalent)
  • Optimization: knowledge in AMPL, OSMOSE, GAMS or equivalent

(EPFL courses: Modelling and Optimization of Energy Systems or equivalent)

Other soft skills that are highly appreciated:

  • Motivation in learning new topics and software/programming/optimization languages
  • Autonomy and self-organization
  • Ability to communicate results (oral and written)
  • Willingness to cooperate with researchers, engineers and students with different backgrounds

How to apply

If interested, please take contact with Tuong-Van Nguyen, Alessio Santecchia and Theodoros Damartzis, attaching your CV, cover letter and transcript of records (Bachelor’s and Master’s).

Practical information

  • The IPESE group is located in Sion (EPFL Valais) at about 1h05 from Lausanne train station. Master students are expected to carry their thesis and be present at least 4 days out of 5, and semester students 1. Compensation is provided by EPFL at the middle of the semester, given that the student has come actively to Sion.
  • Such projects may be carried in groups (in this case, the scope will be adapted appropriately, as well as the supervision).

Additional information

The project STORE&GO goes beyond the state of the art of Power-to-Gas, which has been studied in several research projects. It focuses on the integration of PtG into the daily operation of European energy grids to investigate the maturity level of the technology. Three different demonstration sites offer highly diverse testing grounds for PtG:

  • available energy sources (high wind power; PV and hydro; PV and wind power)
  • local consumers (low consumption; municipal region; rural area)
  • electricity grid type (transmission grid; municipal distribution grid; regional distribution grid)
  • gas grid type (long distance transport; municipal distribution grid; regional distribution grid)
  • type of CO2source (biogas; waste water; atmosphere)
  • heat integration (veneer mill; district heating; CO2enrichment)

SCCER BIOSWEET focuses on research around the role of biomass in the Swiss energy transition. To this end, the focus relies on the assessment of various biomass conversion routes for diverse feedstock types, as well as the design and optimization of new and innovative biomass value chains and by designing better integrated energy systems.