Could synthetic fuels save the internal combustion engine?

A bottle of synthetic fuel made of hydrogen and CO2 by German startup Ineratec  (Photo: AFP)
A bottle of synthetic fuel made of hydrogen and CO2 by German startup Ineratec (Photo: AFP)


  • The sport of F1, companies such as Toyota and Porsche, and others are racing to create a fuel that could balance carbon emissions by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and prevent billions of vehicles from becoming obsolete

Formula 1 has committed to becoming net zero carbon by 2030. The way it intends to get there is interesting. Rather than mandating electrical vehicles, which are not carbon neutral (though they have zero emissions), F1 will continue to use internal combustion engines or adopt hybrid ones. However, it will switch to synthetic lab-based fuels, which capture ambient carbon dioxide to balance the emissions produced by those monster engines.

Crucially, this fuel could be used in normal internal combustion engines with no modifications required. If the initiative is successful it could help rescue billions of legacy internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles from obsolescence. Formula 2 and Formula 3 are also following big brother’s lead and seeking cleaner fuels.

While every major carmaker is gung-ho on EVs and hybrids, some – such as Toyota and Porsche – are also looking at developing cleaner, more efficient internal combustion engines for their regular production models. Porsche is also setting up its own synthetic fuel manufacturing centre in Chile.

Here’s the logic for the shift in R&D focus. There’s an environmental impact to manufacturing any vehicle, EV or ICE, since they all contain plastics and metals – including rare earths. By some estimates, manufacturing EVs results in higher carbon emissions than making conventional ICE cars. EVs use huge lithium-ion batteries and lots of rare earths. These need to be mined and refined and this has a big carbon impact.

EVs are popular because they are zero-emission and low-maintenance and because legislation everywhere favours them. Indeed, the EU is considering legislation that would only allow the sale of zero-carbon-emission cars after 2035, and mandate drastic emissions cuts for vehicles sold from 2030-35. Germany, however, has pushed for this legislation to be tweaked to allow the sale of cars running on carbon-neutral fuels. Japan is also looking at clean fuels.

It’s estimated that by 2030, only about 8% of the two billion or so vehicles on roads will be purely electric. The vast majority will still be ICE vehicles. The issue with these vehicles is not the engine – it’s the fuel.

Crude has to be mined and refined and these processes cause huge carbon emissions. The exhaust from these vehicles also contains carbon dioxide and other toxic gases. Thus both fuel production and consumption emit carbon. However, if a synthetic ‘e-fuel’ can be manufactured – one that captures ambient carbon dioxide to balance carbon emissions from the exhaust – it could become carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative.

F1 is working with Aramco to produce such a fuel, while Porsche is working with Siemens Energy and Exxon-Mobil. The process involves capturing ambient carbon dioxide and extracting hydrogen from sea water by using renewable electricity. The hydrogen is pumped into the CO2 to produce methyl alcohol (methanol), which is turned into a synthetic petrol using a process pioneered by Exxon-Mobil.

If the mathematics balance out, the carbon emissions from this e-fuel will be less than or equal to the amount of carbon captured from the air. And if the finances balance out, the fuel could be competitively priced. If all goes well, ICE vehicles won’t have to be retired. Porsche, for instance, is committed to going electric or hybrid with 80% of its production, but wishes to stick to ICE for its iconic 911.

The engineering challenges are formidable, however. The Porsche facility in Chile has solved the green hydrogen problem, sort of, by using wind power to crack water since it’s an excellent location for wind turbines. However, global electrolyser capacity for green hydrogen is much lower than required. CO2 capture is also not very efficient. Moreover, e-fuel production is expensive vis-a-vis petrol from crude and it’s less energy-efficient than EVs or conventional ICE fuels.

Making synthetic fuels cost-effective at scale will involve looking for sites where renewable energy can be plentifully produced (perhaps exploiting geothermal and tidal as well as solar and wind). It will also require ramping up efficiencies in carbon capture processes and electrolyser scales. But it does offer an alternative route to sustainability. Keeping two billion vehicles in service using green fuel may have a smaller environmental impact than replacing them.

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