When Porsche announced it was teaming up with Siemens and energy companies ENEL and AME to build a synthetic electronic fuels plant in Chile, it was music to many people’s ears.
The idea of electronic fuels, many believed, would not only allow owners to keep their classic Porsches on the road, it could save the internal combustion engine entirely from extinction.
After all, why bother with the potential for “range anxiety” and overnight charging when you can just keep filling up your car at any gas station with nearly carbon-free fuel?
Plus, according to Bosch, another company investing in the field, you could do it for just £1 a litre?
For manufacturers too, the potential of synthetic fuels would surely see them abandon wholesale electrification programs in favor of a much more cost effective alternative.
So why aren’t we talking more about synthetic e-fuels?
What is an e-fuel?
Synthetic e-fuels are, in theory, almost entirely carbon neutral. Porsche’s Chilean project would, for example, see hydrogen extracted from water via an electrolysis process powered by an on-site wind farm.
The carbon had to be extracted from the atmosphere and, using a methanol synthesis reactor, converted into methanol.
The combination of hydrogen and methanol would create a combustible hydrocarbon that could be used in an internal combustion engine with little or no modification.
What are Porsche’s plans for synthetic e-fuels?
Porsche said that in future the Porsche Supercup racing series will be powered entirely by synthetic e-fuels made at its Chilean plant. With 70% of the cars the company has ever made still on the road, electric fuels are an option that will keep them there, underscoring the fuel’s potential use to sustain other classics in the future.
Porsche also said it would use the fuel to power cars at its Porsche Experience Centers, and the consortium behind the project in Chile said it plans to increase production to 55 million liters of fuel. by 2024 and 500 million liters by 2026.
The company seems to have been a little quiet on the outlook lately, according to some reports.
Are there any downsides to synthetic e-fuels?
Synthetic e-fuels have a number of benefits and will almost certainly have a future, although there are enough issues to suggest they won’t go so far as to “save” the internal combustion engine from the battery electric vehicles.
The main problem with e-fuels is economics. Some 500 million liters of e-fuel is barely a drop in the ocean compared to the 45-50 billion liters of petrol and diesel consumed each year in the UK alone; the United States uses 467 billion liters each year.
According to an e-fuel advocacy group, the eFuel Alliance, this is not such a problem because it does not foresee a sudden shift to synthetic fuels, but rather the gradual addition of synthetics to the gasoline mix, say 4 % by 2025, 12% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The group also said that eventually synthetic fuels could cost between £1.15 and £1.87 per litre.
The current average cost per liter of petrol is £1.49 per liter and is expected to rise sharply over the next few months, so the e-fuel prediction looks excellent.
However, another source – the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a US non-profit organization – claims this is totally unrealistic, putting the cost at £2.50-3.35 per liter by 2030 While £3 per liter for petrol might not seem unreasonable for small-scale hobbyist applications, for those who put in a lot of miles it will no doubt seem excessive.
The fact remains that if synthetic e-fuels can be mostly carbon neutral to produce, they are not carbon neutral at the point of use; this is also before taking into account the carbon cost of shipping. While road transport in some territories may be cleaned up over the next decade or two, sea transport will likely be far from carbon neutral for some time to come.
Although synthetic e-fuels may be around 85% less carbon intensive than today’s liquid fuels, that’s still not zero, which given the scale of the climate crisis, some say it doesn’t. just isn’t good enough.
Another question arises with regard to the hydrogen needed to manufacture synthetic fuels: how environmentally friendly is it? Yes, Porsche’s Chilean project will extract its hydrogen using wind power, but the majority of the hydrogen currently produced in the world is created from energy from fossil fuels.
Increasing the production of green hydrogen created using electrolysis would require large amounts of energy beyond the current infrastructural capabilities of most countries.
UK clean transport advocacy group Transport and Environment says synthetic e-fuels are four times less energy dense than batteries and, according to their analysis, if only 10% of all cars and vans in the UK used e-fuels, it would require three times more renewable energy than if the same number of battery-powered vehicles.
Ultimately, the mass adoption of synthetic fuels may also be hindered by a lack of consumer demand.
With a number of governments around the world, including that of the UK, planning to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, demand for old fuels could simply fall for anything other than legacy applications.
One of the biggest complaints about electric vehicles today is their relative cost compared to internal combustion cars, largely due to the cost of their batteries. But automakers expect electric cars to start reaching price parity with internal combustion models by 2028, with the purchase price falling further thereafter.
If so, by the late 2030s or early 2040s, for many resisters, the economics of using an internal combustion engine as an everyday driver might no longer hold true. ‘accumulate. Synthetic e-fuels for on-road use may then be of interest to few recreational users such as vintage car enthusiasts and motorcyclists. But for this particular niche, e-fuels could be vital.