Porsche, Stellantis, Ferrari, BMW, and other automakers are taking a hard look at carbon neutral e-fuel to extend the life of the internal combustion and diesel engines for sports cars, SUVs, and pickups. Supporters are saying that synthetic fuels are the only way to decarbonize internal combustion engines; critics say that it is a costly distraction from electrification.
The European Commission’s decision in late March to allow an exemption for cars running on e-fuels to qualify for sale after 2035, leads to a positive option for drivers. All new vehicles must be zero-emission by 2035, and e-fuels has given the internal combustion engine a new life in Europe.
Critics say e-fuels are an expensive distraction from the transition to electrification, which they say offers a much greater return on investment if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gases. Forget the politics – let take closer look.
First off: What are e-fuels or synthetic fuels? E-fuel combines carbon dioxide taken from the air, (or captured from carbon producing systems, like a refinery) and hydrogen obtained from water by electrolysis.
The lure of e-fuel is that, with no modifications to the engine, gasoline injectors, different elements, or emissions methods, it allows an inside combustion automobile to run almost as cleanly as an EV.
Automakers say the e-fuel works in all their engines. The issue is the refiners have to determine a way to manufacture it at a value near gasoline. E-fuel’s price is greater than $11 per gallon now. The latest research by the Worldwide Council on Clear Transportation says Shell, Exxon, Aramco, and several other smaller refiners have been creating e-fuels and testing them daily for years.
In Europe, automakers like Porsche and Ferrari are testing e-fuel to protect the character and efficiency of the sports cars. Refiners have some work to do in perfecting high-volume strategies to provide e-fuel in sufficient amounts to replace or blend with gasoline. Reducing the price is critical for consumers. Today, Porsche has invested $75 million in the production e-fuels in Chile, Germany, and other countries.
Automakers say that e-fuel is a direct, drop-in alternative for gasoline. Utilizing e-fuel in a gasoline or diesel vehicle is a smart option because it eliminates almost all the dangerous emissions.
On the negative side, critics highlight that manufacturing e-fuels is very expensive and energy-intensive. Using e-fuels in an internal combustion engine car requires about five times more renewable electricity than running a battery-electric vehicle, according to a 2021 paper in the Nature Climate Change journal.
Some policymakers also argue that e-fuels should be reserved for hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as shipping and aviation – which, unlike passenger cars, cannot easily run on electric batteries.
Most major carmakers and governments are betting on battery-electric vehicles – a technology that is already widely available – as the main route to cut CO2 emissions from passenger cars.
But suppliers and oil majors defend e-fuels, as well as a number of carmakers who don’t want their vehicles weighed down by heavy batteries.
E-fuels are not yet produced at scale. The world’s first commercial plant opened in Chile in 2021, backed by Porsche and aiming to produce 550 million liters per year. Other planned plants include Norway’s Norsk e-Fuel, due to begin producing in 2024 with a focus on aviation fuel.
We shall see what consumer want to buy and their choices will improve over time . I’m waiting on e-fuel for my vehicles, how about you?
Lauren Fix is a nationally recognized automotive expert, media guest, journalist, author, keynote speaker and television host. A trusted automotive expert, Lauren provides an insider’s perspective on a wide range of automotive topics, energy and safety issues for both the auto industry and consumers. Her analysis is honest and straightforward.
Follow Lauren on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram