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Going all-EV is great, because it lowers a company’s fleet CO2 emissions significantly and instantly. But is there any future in developing traditional fuels? Tristan Young investigates.

 

Total races for synthetic Fuel

Oil company Total is already working on 100% renewable liquid fuel.

Rather than using the methods outlined by Professor Turner, Total is developing a bioethanol made from wine production residues.

The fuel is called Excellium Racing 100 and has been given the green light to be used in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 2022.

“Our ambition is to be a major player in the energy transition and to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” said Patrick Pouyanné, chairman and CEO of TotalEnergies.

“TotalEnergies is supporting its customers and partners in their evolutions, by applying its strategy to motorsport.

“Advanced biofuels have an undeniable part to play in helping the transport sector to reduce its CO2 emissions. This 100% renewable fuel is a perfect illustration. As we are becoming a broad energy company, the racetrack is more than ever an open-air laboratory for TotalEnergies.”

Rather than switching every single new car and van to electric power to reduce our environmental impact, what if there was a way to decarbonise not only new cars but also the existing fleet without having to change the refuelling infrastructure or alter the way cars are built. Wouldn’t that be a better option?

That’s exactly what could happen if we were able to switch to 100% renewable synthetic fuels rather than drilling for oil.

“Low-carbon and completely carbon-neutral fuels can help the existing global vehicle fleet play a role in achieving climate targets,” according to a Bosch spokesman. “Alternative fuels can complement electromobility where purely battery-electric powertrain solutions face economic or physical challenges, such as in heavy trucks.”

Science and technology is already capable of combining hydrogen and carbon to form a liquid hydrocarbon fuel that can be used in a conventional internal-combustion engine. What’s more this synthetic fuel can be produced by using green electricity to split water to produce the hydrogen and capture CO2 from the atmosphere to make the carbon.

Its main downside, currently, is that because this process has yet to be scaled up, it’s yet to become cost effective; this is something that it shares with electric cars, which are still more expensive to produce than ICE vehicles.

Fully synthetic fuels differ from biofuels because, as their name suggests, they’re fully man-made. Biofuels are distilled from organic bi-products of other industries and are then mixed with conventional petrol or diesel.

Synthetic fuels, sometimes called e-fuels, are 100% renewable if produced correctly and based on either methanol or ethanol, according to Professor James Turner from the Clean Combustion Research Centre at the King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia.

Turner points out that methanol, which is relatively energy-dense, is liquid at room temperature, making it easy to store and transport. Methanol is poisonous, but no more so than petrol, he highlights.

Indeed, he adds that methanol, produced in other ways, “may be the world’s most commonly traded chemical, because it’s the basis for a lot of plastic”.

So if synthesised, carbon-neutral, methanol or ethanol can be turned into a fuel that can be run in any petrol (or diesel) engine, why are car makers switching to electric cars rather than pushing for the use of e-fuels?

It’s all because carbon taxation in road transport is all about tailpipe CO2 emissions, according to Turner, and synthetic fuels still produce CO2, even if that CO2 comes from the atmosphere, rather than non-renewable oil. As a result, there’s no incentive to develop, produce or sell e-fuels.

“As long as all your energy inputs are renewable, you’ve got an energy carrier [liquid fuel] that has no carbon footprint,” says Turner.

He adds that while there’s no incentive to produce these fuels for road transport, “we’re going to have to do this sort of thing for aviation”.

“You’ll have to make e-kerosene. And it’s going to have to be carbon-neutral, because we’re not going to fly across the Atlantic on a battery-powered plane. That’s just not going to happen. Even Elon Musk doesn’t say that. So we’ve got to do something to get the energy density up for the fuel in planes.

“The other thing, and this is to bring it back to something that’s probably a bit more relevant to road car use, is that you cannot decarbonise the legacy fleet if you don’t take the carbon out of the fuel they use. And that is just something that’s not thought about. When governments talk about being net carbon-neutral by 2050, they mean from that point going forward. They know there’s going to be a load of stuff that still require fossil fuels, but they’re not being held to account about that. So the legacy fleet is a big issue.”

Why society is going electric and not synthetic

Countering many of Professor Turner’s claims, electrification expert Michael Liebreich, chairman and CEO of Liebreich Associates and an advisor to the UK Government, believes synthetic fuels are too wasteful and costly to succeed.

“Synthetic fuels are amazingly wasteful of energy. If, for example, you start with wind power producing electricity and you look at the wind-to-wheel efficiency of electric cars versus synthetic fuels they’re about six times less efficient because there are so many steps, and internal-combustion engines are less efficient than electric motors.

“But it’s not just that, synthetic fuels are also ludicrously expensive,” he says.

While he admits costs could come down, they would still be too high because of the number of steps involved in turning wind or solar power into a liquid fuel, compared to simply generating electricity and using it to power vehicles.

He adds: “Even once you’ve produced synthetic fuels, you then do the dumbest thing in Dumbville and burn it in an internal-combustion engine. That’s stupid, and it’s all because people don’t want to spend 20 minutes charging on longer journeys.

“You have to remember that charging in the future won’t be like it is now. It’s the equivalent of video streaming 20 years ago when lots of people said we’d never have fast enough internet speeds, yet now we can watch multiple films in a house at the same time.”

Taxation may be stopping e-fuels reaching road transport, but there’s also another, linked, hurdle.

“The stumbling block is scaling up, related to cost. But you could put a taxation regime in place that would help,” claims Turner.

“My suggestion has always been that we need to tax units of energy [rather than volume of liquid fuel]. And then, we need to apply a multiplier that’s based on the fossil carbon impact of supplying that unit of energy. So for gasoline and diesel, they’d be the same. They’d all be put together. But if you could make a fully renewable fuel, you would have a lower carbon impact. You could say that the tax implication of a validated, zero-carbon-impact fuel, should be zero to begin with, so you don’t pay any tax on it.”

In this way, there would be enough profit margin in e-fuels to cover the costs of scaling up production.

“But the important thing for the Exchequer is you’ve got a mechanism for keeping the tax take the same, while favouring the fully renewable fuels. And if you had a fuel that was identical, in terms of how it performed in the engine, and it was 20% cheaper, because it was renewable, everyone would want it. You’d all rush over in that direction,” says Turner.

Turner describes the system that fines manufacturers for cars that produce too much tailpipe CO2 as “completely mad” when it’s the oil companies that profit from the release of CO2.

Turner believes it won’t be until either the taxation system changes that e-fuels will take off or it may trickle-down to road transport after it’s scaled up for aviation and possibly shipping.

Tristan Young