What is synthetic e-fuel? A view into the market-changing alternative power source
Global Warming is one of the greatest problems humanity has to solve in the 21st century. As our carbon footprint rises on the planet, we are slowly creating circumstances that could hamper the successful existence of the human race, i.e. the greenhouse effect. Research has shown that one of the main accelerants of this effect are the automobiles that we use for our transportation and pleasure. This is a well known fact by now and this is one of the major reasons for the industry to slowly move to an electric future with Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV). However, battery tech has its pitfalls too. The environmental impact of lithium mining is massive and disposal of batteries after their life cycle is also an issue.
However, there is a new fuel in the market that would allow us to use our present cars and bikes without making a change to either our fuel infrastructure or our vehicles. This new fuel is called ‘synthetic e-fuel’ and major companies like Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault, and McLaren are investing their resources in finding a viable way to scale this fuel to quench the thirst of the world. So without much further ado, let us dive into this new fuel and see why this can be the answer to the rising emission problems of our planet and the challenges to achieve this dream fuel.
What is Synthetic e-fuel?
Synthetic e-fuel is the product that we get from mixing Hydrogen molecules with Carbon dioxide molecules that are extracted from the atmosphere, which in turn, has the potential to be the fuel for our vehicles. Now as easy as the process may sound, it is tougher than we think.
The CO2 has to be trapped from the air around and heated to 1800 degrees which then breaks down the compound to Carbon monoxide (CO). Then the Carbon monoxide is mixed with Hydrogen (which is extracted from salt water) to form Methanol, which is then further treated to get the fuel called e-fuel.
This fuel is nearly carbon neutral in theory as it extracts the Hydrogen and the CO2 with the help of electricity produced from a wind turbine. Moreover, there are no harmful by-products that get released during the process.
The synthetic e-fuel produced has the same physical characteristics when compared to its crude oil counterparts and as a result, its storage, transportation and delivery remains the same as well. You can use the existing infrastructure of tankers, fuel stations and even fuel tanks in a vehicle to hold this new e-fuel (unlike a BEV, where a fundamental rethink of both car and ecosystem is required).
Current scenario of the e-fuel
With the transition in motion for the world to go electric, a lot of vehicles may fall out of usage and relevance due to this. Which also adds the point that the transition is needed from the consumer’s end to make use of this electric movement and that poses a big hindrance in the process.
Let us also not forget the change in the infrastructure line that we will have to undertake to make this electric dream into a reality. And this is where e-fuel starts to make more sense. Synthetic e-fuel that is produced today, can be used in our daily drives right out of the tap. No modifications or updates are required to our vehicles in order to run them on e-fuel. And, there is no change required to be made to fuel stations to supply them as well.
But in the present day, only Porsche and Audi have their fingers deep in the tech that was seen as a viable option by Nazi Germany during World War 2. Porsche claims that the e-fuel would make their present fleet of cars nearly 85 per cent more efficient in terms of CO2 emissions.
From a production perspective, Porsche and Siemens claim that their plant Haru Oni in Punta Arenas, Chile has the current capacity to produce 34,340 gallons of fuel on an annual basis from 2022. This would be amped up to 145.3 million gallons annually by 2026, should things go according to plan. Now, these numbers might not quench the thirst of the world but would show a proof of concept that can be adapted.
Now, as tempting as the whole synthetic e-fuel thing may sound, it has its fair share of drawbacks and challenges. First comes the price points of these e-fuels. In their current production capacity a litre of the synthetic e-fuel would cost you around $2 per litre in the US. But when compared to fossil fuels, a litre of petrol costs less than a dollar. So due to the higher price point, the transition for the general public would be a hard push to achieve.
Secondly, is the amount of energy required to mate the Hydrogen to the Carbon dioxide. Not only does this process involve lots of stages which use energy, it also adds cost in each process. Moreover, according to transportenvironment.org, automotive hydrogen fuel cells are currently 2.3 times less energy efficient than batteries. Synthetic fuels, on the other hand, are less efficient still, with the estimate being about 4 times worse than batteries and very little improvement by 2050. This adds to the question on how viable will the technology be even if it reaches its full production capacity.
Lastly, the question of Hydrogen stands like an irritable itch. Hydrogen is the fuel of the future according to scientists and researchers. But the problem of storing and transportation of hydrogen hampers any sort of shift to it. Hydrogen needs to be stored at 350 to 700 bar (5,000–10,000 PSI) and at extremely cold temperatures so it doesn’t explode by itself. This not only uses a high amount of energy to maintain these conditions but is also very risky at the same time. Moreover, the amount of Hydrogen to be produced in this fashion from salt water, will also be difficult to scale up for the demands of the future.
These are the few key aspects that stop researchers from believing that synthetic e-fuels will be the answer for our ever growing problems. But if this technology is able to see the light of day, none of the cars on the roads today would have to be extinct in the near future.
Formula 1 and synthetic e-fuel
Formula 1 have recently announced an overhaul of their power unit regulations for 2026 with the mandatory use of fuels from alternative sources in an attempt to make F1 100 per cent carbon neutral by 2030.
Synthetic e-fuels came into light after Formula 1’s negotiations to bring Porsche and Audi into the F1 world as engine suppliers. Formula 1 and the other teams have agreed to the engine regulations changes which means that the other teams have also agreed to use synthetic e-fuels.
This means that manufacturers like Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault will be investing in engine technology that would power their F1 cars with synthetic e-fuels as well as use that technology in the cars they manufacture.
So, this is a clear indication that synthetic e-fuels, no matter how crucial the hurdles might seem, are here to stay and the major players of the automotive markets are taking it seriously as an alternative to EVs.
So with all that said, we are left with a debate on the future of synthetic e-fuels as the top brains of the world try and find a way to make it a reality. If this project sees the light at the end of the tunnel, this would mean that we would not have to swap our cars for a sustainable future. Moreover, this would also help the industry and countries alike as they would not have to invest trillions in infrastructure alone that was supposed to save the future of the planet. And lastly, it would also help us keep the lovely sounds that our vehicles make when we fire them up! For more news, updates and analysis from the world of automobiles, stay tuned to evo India.