Are Synthetic Fuels the Future of Internal Combustion and an Alternative to EVs?

Porsche fuel cap 6 photos
Photo: Porsche
Audi e-diesel plantAudi e-fuel facilityAudi e-fuelHaru Oni pilot plant in ChilePorsche fuel cap
Artificial materials can only be defined as synthetics, and humankind uses a lot of them on a daily basis. From the styrene-butadiene rubbers in tires to plastic bags, freezer refrigerants, nylon socks, and polyester hoodies, it’s very hard to imagine life without synthetic materials.
German chemist Friedrich Bergius converted high-volatile bituminous coal into substitute oil products in 1913 through hydrogenation. A decade later, fellow scientists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch demonstrated how carbon monoxide and hydrogen can be converted into liquid hydrocarbons in the presence of metal catalysts at very high temperatures.

Bergius, Fischer, and Tropsch have paved the way for man-made alternatives to gasoline and diesel, which are touted as the only solution to saving internal combustion as we know it. As a brief refresher, the Euro 7 regulation is considered a de facto ban on fossil-fuel vehicles by many automakers and organizations. Also worthy of mentioning, the EU is serious about banning the sale of new passenger vehicles with combustion engines.

In order to understand the convoluted ways of synthetic fuels as potential replacements to gasoline and diesel, we must first ask ourselves a few questions.

How are synthetic fuels made?

Well, electrolysis is a technique that uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen, which is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe and the lightest element in the periodic table, is then combined with carbon dioxide to produce a liquid. As you would expect, CO2 can be captured by special filters or recycled from industrial processes.

If this procedure sounds too good to be true, you’re not mistaken. Also known as eFuel, automotive-grade alternative fuels are not viable in 2021 because synthetics are very expensive compared to gasoline and diesel.

According to German engineering and technology juggernaut Bosch, low electricity prices and widescale production could make eFuel significantly cheaper. Synthetic fuel may cost €1.40 ($1.66) per liter in the long run, which is comparable to a single liter of gasoline in Germany at the time of writing.

Who are the biggest advocates for eFuel?

Audi comes to mind as one of the earliest supporters of synthetics. Back in 2015, a research facility in Dresden produced the first batch of e-diesel fuel for the four-ringed automaker. From renewable power to liquid hydrocarbon, the efficiency of the overall process is estimated at 70 percent.

Active in CO2-neutral fuels since 2009, the Ingolstadt-based manufacturer of premium vehicles trialed e-gasoline in 2015 in collaboration with French company Global Bioenergies. What Audi calls e-benzin is a sulfur- and benzene-free liquid isooctane made from gaseous isobutene and hydrogen.

“It isn't dependent on crude oil,” said Reiner Mangold, the automaker's head of sustainable product development. “It is compatible with the existing infrastructure and it offers the prospect of a closed carbon cycle."

Porsche is serious about the importance of synthetic fuels as well. "Electric mobility is an exciting and convincing technology, but on its own, it is taking us towards our sustainability targets at a slower pace than we would like," declared R&D boss Michael Steiner. "That's why we are also committing to eFuels while not ignoring possible applications in motorsports either.”

To understand how serious Porsche is about synthetic fuels, the German brand pressures Formula 1 into adopting eFuel in 2025 when new engine rules will be introduced to the open-wheeled racing series. The Stuttgart-based automaker ponders a return to Formula 1, which isn’t exactly surprising because F1 intends to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

Porsche expects half of its sales to be electric by 2025, but the existing fleet of internal-combustion cars shouldn’t be taken out of the equation. “eFuels can be used in combustion engines and plug-in hybrids, and can make use of the existing network of filling stations,” highlighted chief exec Oliver Blume.

Who is skeptical about synthetic fuels?

Daimler AG research and development boss Markus Schäfer says that electric vehicles are better in every respect. He also believes that airlines will get synthetic fuels before the automotive industry. Looking at the bigger picture, Schäfer would say that because Mercedes is pouring billions into EVs that include the slow-selling EQC and all-new EQS flagship sedan.

Big Oil is covertly against man-made alternatives to gasoline and diesel as well. It’s an understandable stance if you put yourself in the shoes of the so-called supermajors, which currently consist of seven companies: BP, Chevron, Eni, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and Conoco Phillips.

Biofuel companies wouldn’t be too excited about the eFuel revolution either if they didn’t get a sizeable piece of the pie. On that note, synthetic fuels also spell trouble for corn farmers because their corn is used to make E85.

Is there a tentative date for the mass adoption of synthetic fuels?

The answer to the final question in this article comes courtesy of Oliver Blume. Speaking at an automotive industry summit in October 2020, Porsche's head honcho said that eFuel will be feasible in roughly a decade.

Porsche is collaborating with energy companies Siemens Energy, ENAP, AME, and Enel to create the world’s first integrated, commercial, industrial-scale plant for climate-neutral fuels. Expected to be operational in 2022, the Chile-based facility can produce 130,000 liters of synthetic fuel in the pilot phase. If all goes according to plan, yearly output will be increased to 55 million liters by 2024, then to 550 million liters by 2026.

The Magallanes Province in Chile was chosen by all parties involved because it’s a windy place. Wind energy, as you’re all aware, is both cheap and friendly to the environment. As the primary user, Porsche will use carbon-neutral fuels in the motorsport fleet and the brand’s experience centers.

“eFuels are an additional element on the road to decarbonization,” declared Blume. “By using them, we can make a further contribution toward protecting the climate. As a maker of high-performance, efficient engines, we have broad technical expertise. We know exactly what fuel characteristics our engines need in order to operate with minimal impact on the climate.”

Even the German government understood the importance of the plant. In addition to an initial investment of €20 million ($23.75 million) from Porsche, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is supporting Siemens Energy’s role in this project with €8 million ($9.5 million) in the form of a grant.

“New supply chains are going to arise all over the world to carry renewable energy from one region to another,” said Christian Bruch, the Dusseldorf-born head of Siemens Energy since May 2020. “Hydrogen will come to play an increasingly important role in storing and transporting energy, which is why the German government’s support is an important signal.”
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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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