Can synthetic fuels (e-fuel) be considered as CO2 neutral energy? This is the topic of the current debate in Europe, but the fact is that several manufacturers are working on these e-fuels that will supposedly “save” the heat engine after 2035. But in fact, is this really the future? A (small) alternative to the electric car?
We’ve been talking about synthetic fuel in Frandroid for a while, and we haven’t been curious about this energy for a while, for various reasons. As you know, by 2035, normally, The sale of new thermal and hybrid cars will be prohibited.
Therefore, the only alternative will be the electric car, but also all energy carbon neutral, like hydrogen. Except that for a few weeks, some member countries of the European Union have found the text too strict, such as Germany, which would like to integrate synthetic fuels as a carbon-neutral energy and thus “save” thermal power in Europe after 2035 .
Remember that there is above all an economic stake for Germany, whose car industry is now essentially based on the production of gasoline, diesel and hybrid cars.
Synthetic fuel, what is it?
So let’s start at the beginning, what is e-fuel, also called “synthetic fuel”? These are artificially produced fuels through the use of ” Power to X from a common base: water. Thanks to a chemical process of electrolysis Triggered by the use of electricity generated from renewable sources (otherwise there would be no environmental benefits), the water splits into oxygen and green hydrogen.
Hydrogen, thanks to the process Fischer Tropsch (which consists of the heterogeneous catalytic reduction of carbon monoxide by hydrogen to convert them into hydrocarbons) is combined with CO2 taken from the environment or stored using carbon capture technology, thus creating a gas that, depending on the process of chemical synthesis and subsequent refining, is transformed into e-fuel.
Therefore, e-fuels are produced without oil or biomass, but from CO2 and low carbon electricity. And the notion of low carbon electricity is very important..
Can all thermal cars be equipped with it?
The answer is yes, and without the addition of a box as can be the case with ethanol for example. Even better, the chemical specificity of e-fuels may even be higher than that of today’s unleaded and diesel. These fuels being synthetic, you can put “whatever you want” in them, that is, elements that burn perfectly in an engine and with good energy efficiency.
On the other hand, saying that e-fuel allows reducing pollutant emissions in the exhaust, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) or fine particles, it’s totally wrong. The interest of synthetic fuel, is to reduce polluting emissions during the manufacturing process. But in the exhaust we still have CO2 that is released into the atmosphere after combustion in the engine.
For example, synthetic fuel could make current thermal models more or less climate neutral through upstream CO capture.2CO2 which will then be used to produce synthetic fuel again, which will be emitted from the exhaust pipe after the combustion of the engine, and so on.
Therefore, we return to our comment in the previous section: the interest of e-fuel, is that it is produced from low carbon electricity. And it is precisely the case of Porsche that is going to interest us today, since it is one of the main players in the investigation around synthetic fuels.
Porsche: an electric future, but…
Porsche is a brand for car lovers and the Stuttgart firm has essentially built its image around a flagship product: the 911. And a Porsche 911 is first and foremost a six-cylinder, a powerful flat-six (increasingly). and sound (less and less) that is a delight for lovers of sports cars. Porsche has announced it: the 911 will be the brand’s last electric model.
It must be said that you don’t really need it, since despite the various taxes that apply to this type of vehicle in certain markets, more than 40,000 911 cars found buyers worldwide last yearthe manufacturer’s third sale behind the Cayenne and Macan, but ahead of the Taycan electric sedan!
However, Porsche’s ambitions in terms of electrification are extremely high for a manufacturer that has built its reputation on the sportiness of its models.
Today the range includes several hybrid models and a single electric car with the Taycan. Electric cars also accounted for 75% of Porsche sales in France in 2022. In 2030, 80% of the Porsche range will be electricwith in particular the electric Macan, the 718 Boxster and electric Cayman or the electric Cayenne.
You will have understood, for Porsche, the future seems electric, and synthetic fuels, in fact, seem destined for a different role than as an alternative to electricity.
Why is Porsche so interested in synthetic fuels?
Porsche has just launched a pilot project with Siemens Energy to build a synthetic fuel production plant in Chile, which should produce up to 550 million liters of fuel by 2026. Initially, this fuel will only be used to power the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup in the Super Cup, one of the many one-design championships organized by the manufacturer.
Why Chile? Because it is a particularly windy region and the wind turbines there provide 3.5 times more electricity than if they were installed in Germany. This energy could also prevent it from being lost, since the low population density found in the vicinity does not allow its direct use.
At the time of writing these lines, if one liter of this synthetic fuel were to be commercialized, it would be around 10 dollars. As Barbara Frenkel, Purchasing Director at Porsche, recently admitted “the fuel we make is too expensive for us to use”while specifying that without state aid, these alternatives would have no future on a larger scale.
But precisely, is the future of this energy really destined for the large scale? The answer today is no, and even if Europe were to integrate synthetic fuels as a carbon-neutral energy, the future of this energy would have to be confined to a specific area. To give you a small idea, in the world we consume 179,000 liters of fuel per second. Getting to such a level with electronic fuels, with the current means of generating electricity, seems simply impossible.
In fact Porsche is interested in synthetic fuel essentially to allow those who find pleasure in driving and piloting thermal cars, those for whom the noise and sensations of a flat-six will never be matched by any artificial noise or silence of the electric ones. It is also a way for Porsche to preserve its heritage and continue to bring iconic models to life.. The manufacturer’s argument is as follows: Porsche sells 90% of electric cars in 2035, it is not 10% of sales of thermal models that will harm the ecosystem, especially since these cars are certainly not required to travel more than a few few thousand. km per year.
The customers of these types of cars are also, in general, quite wealthy, and they certainly won’t be against using their heat engine in good and proper shape, even if a full tank must cost twice as much as a full tank of unleaded gasoline. today. Porsche, however, mentions around two euros per liter of e-fuel, excluding taxes, in 2030. For comparison, at the beginning of 2023, gasoline in France costs less than one euro per liter, excluding taxes.
And on the road then?
For once, let’s deviate from the rule at Frandroid and change our usual electric cars for a thermal model… but with a full tank of synthetic fuel! The meeting took place on the highest circuit in Europe, at 2,300 meters above sea level, near Val-Thorens.
To show us how efficient this fuel is, Porsche invited us to get behind the wheel of a Cayman GT4 RS, the perfect example of the quintessential pleasure car. On the menu, therefore, a flat six 4.0-liter atmospheric engine with 500 hp and a 0 to 100 km/h shot in just 3.4 seconds.
On an ice track, needless to say, we couldn’t take advantage of even 10% of the car’s lean, even with studded tyres. But it is clear that the perfect balance of the GT4 RS allows you to have fun and enjoy the pleasure of sliding.
Yeah, but the synthetic fuel in all this? To be quite frank, difficult to say under these conditions whether the mechanical behavior changesAlthough, a priori, no. The engine is close to 9,000 rpm, as always, and howls in our ears as we approach the red zone. exciting
In reality, this exercise is a pretext for Porsche to talk about synthetic fuels. And it is clear that, indeed, if they were authorized in Europe, this would be a great way to keep those mechanical works of art spinningfor the few hundred kilometers that they travel on average during a year, for recreational use.
Synthetic fuel problems
But the arrival of synthetic fuel and the authorization to sell new cars with this fuel from 2035 raises several problems. The first is social. It is easy to imagine that electric cars will be reserved for the vast majority of the European population, for the needs of utilitarian transport. While thermal cars will then be reserved for the wealthiest, who will have the right to make noise, to continue polluting (let’s not forget fine particles) in order to have fun. Of course, this will be a small minority, which will account for a very small part of the car fleet.
The other problem is that synthetic fuel requires the use of renewable energies, while these will be necessary to satisfy the most basic needs of the world population. We find the same problem here as with hydrogen cars.
Finally, won’t the development of these synthetic fuels eat up some of the research and development budget of automakers, which could use it to make electric cars more efficient?
Anyway, the future seems to be electricand Porsche knows it very well with a range made up of 80% 100% electric cars within a period of seven years.
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