Will e-fuels keep the internal combustion engine running?

July 27, 2022

The age of the internal combustion engine (ICE) seems to be coming to an end. But is the future of transport dominated by zero-emission vehicles? Autovista24 Deputy Editor Tom Geggus is joined by Editor Phil Curry and Journalist Rebeka Shaid to discuss e-fuels.

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Can e-fuels save the internal combustion engine?

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European lawmakers reach compromise on emissions and end sales of new petrol and diesel cars

How important is motorsport to the automotive industry as technologies evolve?

New F1 synthetic fuel has real ambitions

Are e-fuels as green as they seem?

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Synopsis of the episode

The use of e-fuels in the transport sector is a controversial subject, not only at the political level but also in the automotive industry at large. Opinions on these alternative fuels remain split, with proponents hoping synthetic fuels can be used beyond the proposed Europe-wide ban on new ICE cars in 2035. Following a meeting between environment ministers and climate of the EU, a door has been left open for carbon. neutral fuels.

E-fuels are a synthetic copy of petroleum-based fuels and are often touted as more sustainable as production relies on CO2 captured from the atmosphere. If renewable energy is used during this process, e-fuels can be considered climate neutral.

Proponents point out that e-fuels can help meet emissions reduction targets because they have high energy density, are easy to store and can be transported cost-effectively over long distances.

Reduction of emissions

According to last digits According to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), there were 348.6 million passenger cars on European roads in 2020, with an average fleet age of around 12 years. Only 0.5% of these were battery electric vehicles (BEVs), meaning 346.9 million vehicles use some form of ICE drivetrain. These vehicles won’t disappear overnight in 2035, and as drivers grapple with potential electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure shortages, many may turn to the used-car market to keep rolling. .

As automakers focus on zero-emission technologies, millions of drivers of these older vehicles could help reduce emissions through the use of e-fuels. Their use may even become mandatory, as may the introduction of E10 unleaded petrolor biodiesel.

Automakers such as Mazda and BMW support e-fuels. Porsche is also a big believer and is currently making big investments. Together with Siemens Energy and other companies, the sports car manufacturer is building an industrial plant in Chile, which will be dedicated to the production of an “almost carbon-neutral e-fuel”.

Motorsport use

Electric fuels also have an important role to play in motorsport. Formula 1which many consider the pinnacle of racing, will introduce synthetic fuels as part of its new engine regulations from 2026. These new rules are expected to entice automakers Porsche and Audi to join Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Renault, while Honda has also retained its interests through a partnership with Red Bull Powertrains.

The development of e-fuels in this high-pressure sport could promote their presence on the roads in Europe. For Ferrari, it may also help the automaker understand how to get the most out of future sports cars, which may face challenges as the industry moves towards electrification. E-fuels could then work as a transition technology and could be used in niches where electrification is currently not possible.

Environment and e-fuels

But the efficiency of e-fuels is questioned, in particular because of their profitability, low availability and high energy consumption. Environmental transport groups have repeatedly raised the red flag on synthetic fuels.

Transport and Environment (T&E) published the results of its research late last year. The organization found that e-fuels emit as many nitrous oxides as standard E10 gasoline, significantly more carbon monoxide and twice as much ammonia. More recently, T&E analyzed the total life cycle emissions cars purchased in 2030. A car running on a mix of e-fuels and gasoline would only reduce its life cycle emissions by 5% compared to conventional fuels.

During this time, the International Clean Transportation Council (ICCT) highlighted the inefficiency of synthetic fuels. According to the group, at best, half of the electrical energy used during production is converted into liquid or gaseous fuels. With the inefficiency of an internal combustion engine, an e-fuel route may only see efficiency levels of 16%. Considering the expense, inefficiency, and environmental risk, synthetic fuels are starting to look more like a stepping stone worth missing.

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