(TNS) — As automakers invest heavily in electric vehicles for the future, some also are dabbling in technology that could reduce emissions from internal combustion engines and help fulfill pledges to achieve carbon neutrality.
Porsche AG, for example, is researching the use of synthetic fuels, or eFuels. These fuels, the German automaker says, have the potential to make internal combustion engine vehicles run as clean as EVs, but the problem, experts say, is cost — from both financial and energy-efficiency perspectives.
Porsche CEO Oliver Blume told Hagerty that a synthetic replacement for gasoline currently costs about $37 per gallon — though he said his team is working to bring that down. Gasoline currently averages less than $3 per gallon in Michigan.
It's more expensive and energy-intensive to make synthetic fuels, which is why they aren't widely available to consumers right now. But some experts and manufacturers see synthetic fuel as just another lever — in addition to batteries and fuel cells — enabling the transportation industry to further reduce its reliance on carbon-emitting fuel to power vehicles, boats and airplanes. And though many automakers are going all-in on the development of hybrid and battery-electric vehicles, a full transition from gas-powered vehicles still is years away. Even when EVs are more widely adopted, millions of internal combustion engine vehicles will remain on the road. Already, about half of the vehicles that will be on the road in 2030 have already been sold, most containing gas- or diesel-powered engines, according to a 2019 Bosch Group report.
"There's no silver bullet solution," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights. "But if they can make the transition from crude oil-based fuels to synthetic fuels, it should be an improvement and it should help support the existing vehicle fleet for a while and keep those vehicles going.
"Ideally, you don't want to scrap relatively young vehicles if you can avoid it because now you've wasted resources there as well. So it's a matter of finding the right balance."
Though synthetic fuels are not widely available, experts say they could eventually act as a sort of interim solution until electrified vehicles take hold. And they could have useful applications in other transportation sectors, such as aviation.
"The demand (for a carbon-free transportation) is big enough that there are a lot of different elements to the grand plan and synthetic fuels and electric vehicles both play into a grand plan — to the extent that we have a plan," said Jim Szybist, head of propulsion science at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
What is Synthetic Fuel?
Synthetic fuels are manufactured via chemical processes, Abuelsamid explained, in contrast with crude oils that are extracted from the earth and refined. One type that involves taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into fuel has recently generated interest, he said.
Here's how that works. The fuel is produced first by extracting hydrogen from water, adding it to recycled CO2 gas that's already in the air and mixing the two together to form a fuel liquid, Bosch, which also researches synthetic fuels, explains on its website.
Though it notes that the manufacturing process remains "painstaking and expensive" for the time being, the multinational automotive supplier, citing experts, sees potential for gas- and diesel-powered vehicles to become carbon neutral as early as 2025 with a transition to synthetic fuels.
Porsche, which is partnering with Siemens Energy on a synthetic fuels pilot project in Chile, uses wind power to extract hydrogen from water. Then CO2 is filtered out of the air and combined with the hydrogen to form synthetic methanol.
"It's certainly more expensive than pumping petroleum out of the ground and refining that," Szybist said.
The process is not just expensive, it also takes more energy to convert the gas to a liquid. Using electricity to recycle CO2 from the air is an energy loss, extracting hydrogen from water is another loss and then making it into fuel is a loss, explained Johannes Schwank, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan.
"In the end, it comes down to how much energy you're willing to give up," he said.
When developing synthetic fuels, it's important that the hydrogen and CO2 be obtained using renewable energy; otherwise, synthetic fuel wouldn't be carbon-free. A company using electricity from the U.S. electric grid to make synthetic fuels, for example, wouldn't be carbon-free.
The United States still is shifting from coal to natural gas, and more renewables are coming online, "but we do not have a carbon-free electric grid in this country," Szybist said. "Where you're getting your electricity from and what the carbon footprint of the electricity is matters a lot when you're making the synthetic fuels, as well as when you're recharging electric vehicles."
Still, Abuelsamid said, synthetic fuels "have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of net carbon that's put into the atmosphere, compared to just taking crude oil and refining it."
And, he noted, the U.S. already has a vast and convenient fueling infrastructure with more than 100,000 gas stations across the country.
Exploring Its Use
Blume, the Porsche CEO, said the company plans to reach CO2 neutrality by 2030.
To help it get there, Porsche is developing a commercial, industrial-scale plant in Chile to make synthetic, climate-neutral fuels. The German automaker, which has invested 20 million euros on this venture, plans to use eFuels in its motorsports fleet and in series production sports cars.
"With eFuels, our Porsche classic cars or our hybrid models could drive in the future almost CO2 neutrally and current sports cars ... that do not allow for fully electric drives due to their concepts can drive almost CO2 neutrally thanks to eFuels," Blume said during Porsche's annual press conference last month.
McLaren and Audi AG, the premium division of Volkswagen AG, also have researched and discussed the use of synthetic fuels. Another Volkswagen brand, the über premium Bentley, has expressed interest, too.
General Motors Co. declined a request to discuss synthetic fuels. The automaker has developed vehicles that run on biofuels, which are different, and back in 2010, it touted its commitment to biofuels. It offered 17 models in its 2010 lineup that could run on gas, E85 ethanol — the renewable fuel made from crops like corn — or any combination of the two.
GM in 2021 is focused on developing electric vehicles. It plans to offer 30 of them globally by 2025 and is pushing for a carbon-free lineup by 2035. The automaker is also exploring the use of hydrogen fuel cells, which have a longer range than their battery-powered peers.
Stellantis NV, the company formed in the transatlantic merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Groupe PSA of France, declined to comment on whether it has looked into developing similar products — even as it ramps up electrification technology and its self-driving partnership with Google affiliate Waymo LLC.
Ford Motor Co., too, is focused on electrification. The Dearborn automaker plans to invest more than $20 billion in EV development through 2025 and has said it aims to be carbon neutral globally by 2050. And it recently announced plans to make almost its entire European vehicle lineup electric in the coming years.
"Ford is focused on its commitment to electrification, investing at least $22 billion in electrified vehicles through 2025, including the all-new Mustang Mach-E, E-Transit coming later this year and all-electric F-150 coming in 2022," Ford spokesman Mike Levine said in a statement to The Detroit News. "While synthetic fuels are not a focus, we welcome a range of solutions to reduce carbon emissions to achieve our goal of carbon neutrality."
That range of solutions might be necessary, UM's Schwank explained, because "electric vehicles have a weakness and that is the energy storage." Synthetic fuels could be a help in that, too, but automakers are already investing billions in EVs. GM's capital allocation plan for just this year includes spending more than $6 billion on them, for example.
"Car companies have only a limited bandwidth," Schwank said. "It's a costly exercise for society to switch from fossil fuels to renewable-electricity-driven transportation."
Experts do see the potential for synthetic fuels to reduce emissions for other modes of transportation, such as airplanes and ships, that aren't likely to go electric in the near future.
"Weight is critical for aircraft, and batteries are heavy," Abuelsamid said. "But if you can replace ... gas with a synthetic version that is less carbon-intensive, that would actually be a real benefit."
From Porsche's perspective, eFuels will not replace electrification plans. By 2030, Porsche expects more than 80 percent of its lineup will be electrically powered. The eFuels are seen as a supplement to aid in the carbon-free mission.
"I've been talking a lot about what the future of a decarbonized transportation system looks like, and it's going to be a mix," said Szybist of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "There's a lot of room for a lot of different technologies."
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