Most every motor vehicle manufacturer is pushing the development of electric vehicles to one degree or another, some even committing to an all electric lineup in the not too distant future, all in the name of climate change. Whatever you may think of that issue, when so many companies are going electric and current political forces are anti-fossil fuel, you might want to have a Plan B in place if you want to keep your internal combustion engines on the road, whether you’re building vehicles, racing them or simply own one.
Porsche, so well known for high performance gasoline powered cars, is concerned enough about the issue that they’ve signed on as the primary customer for a new plant being built to produce synthetic fuel. After all, a Porsche without fuel is just a garage ornament.
Formula 1, the exotic, high dollar racing series, has a different issue. Teams funded by auto manufacturers have to justify their expense and those manufacturers want something in return in the form of new technology that can trickle down, helping them build low emission, carbon neutral vehicles, so the racers are developing sustainability in their drive systems beyond simply adding electric power and regenerative braking, because they need to maintain the experience for the fans and the scream of the engines is a huge factor. Liquid fuel is a necessity, so they’re on the hunt for a 100 percent sustainable fuel.
This plays out in much the same way across the rest of the motor vehicle marketplace, if you want to keep your ICE powered vehicles, they need fuel. We already have fuel, of course, gasoline is a wonderful, energy dense liquid, but it’s currently facing political headwinds, so what are the alternatives?
How are e-fuels produced?
In the case of Porsche, the project they are a part of is creating e-fuels through a process powered by carbon free electricity:
First, Electrolyzers use wind power to split water into its components, oxygen and hydrogen. …
Next, CO₂ is captured from the air and combined with the green hydrogen to produce synthetic methanol: The basis for climate-neutral fuels like e-diesel, e-gasoline or e-kerosene, that can be used to power cars, trucks, ships or aircraft.
Formula 1 is in a period of transition, first trying bio-fuels:
… the governing body delivered the first barrels of 100 per cent sustainable fuel, blended from bio-waste, ethanol produced from second-generation (inedible) plants and wood-based toluene (to increase octane rating), to F1’s engine suppliers for evaluation.
‘That fuel didn’t perform as well as we might have hoped,’ (Pat Symonds, F1s chief technical officer) readily concedes. ‘When I say that, we weren’t expecting the same performance from it because the Formula 1 fuels we have at the moment have been tailored for energy density, above 43MJ (megajoules) per kg. They’re incredibly energy dense fuels. So I think there’s still some work to do.’
Then they considered custom laboratory designed fuels created specifically for particular engines, but they’re probably moving toward “drop-in” fuels, developed by Aramco and multiple other oil companies, using solar power to create e-fuels that would work in a wide variety of current engines.
F1 has some of the most complex drivetrain requirements anywhere, the e-fuels are just one part, but if they come up with a good solution, it may have far reaching implications for internal combustion engines everywhere.
Are e-Fuels the future of liquid fuel?
From a positive perspective, e-gasoline can be used in current engines without changes, distributed through the current fueling infrastructure, and they exhibit significant emission reduction, as well.
Is this practical?
The Haru Oni project backed by Porsche looks like it should work in a technical sense, but producing this fuel at the scale necessary to replace the gasoline and diesel fuel currently derived from oil seems to be a very tall order. The pilot project in Chile may supply some of the needs of Porsche and with promises of scale in the coming years, it may meet more of their needs, but making a dent in the current needs of the entire world’s current vehicle fleet seems difficult, if not impossible, because they’re going to need an enormous number of these kinds of plants and a huge amount of electricity to power them.
There’s also no mention of the cost of producing fuel by this process. How much are you willing to pay to fill your tank with a carbon neutral fuel?
If carbon free electricity is necessary to power the process, wind, solar and hydro will not be anywhere near enough to do the job and there is a glaring omission among the carbon free power sources listed and it betrays the politics.
If the goal is de-carbonizing our electric grid or producing e-fuels, to not mention nuclear power is environmental and political posturing. Nuclear power is carbon free and has a capacity factor of over 95 percent, while wind and solar are intermittent, operating at a capacity factor averaging 25 or 30 percent, except, perhaps, in this one windy location in Chile where the Porsche project is located. Unfortunately for Porsche, Germany has decided nuclear power is forbidden, which currently makes Germany’s electricity very expensive and plants such as the one planned for Chile can’t be built close to home which adds the cost of shipping the fuel in by tanker to what is likely an already very expensive fuel.
The fuel planned for Formula 1, if developed with plants run by solar power in Saudi Arabia, may work for the racing series where cost is less of an issue, but again, if we’re going to scale this process to replace fossil fuel in the billion vehicles currently on the road, there’s some work to do at an extremely high cost.
Nuclear power could deliver carbon free e-fuels
If the process of developing e-fuels in these types of plants is technically feasible, using nuclear power would mean we could make current internal combustion engine powered vehicles carbon free which would not require a wholesale replacement of the current vehicle fleet. We could eliminate the range and recharge time issues because liquid fuels could be delivered in the existing infrastructure and your current gasoline vehicle would now be carbon free. What’s not to like?
Will this happen?
More and more environmentalists are coming around to nuclear power, as well they should, because if the goal is as much carbon free power as we need, then we have the technology to deliver it. If climate change is a crisis and carbon free is the answer, what are we waiting for? Of course, if solving the problem isn’t the goal, then nuclear power will not be used for the grid or e-fuels or anything else. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how this develops. Or, we could all do this.