Engineering Explained: Are E-Fuels Real? | Jobs Vox


Illustration by Jason Holley

The combustion engine doesn’t have to die. At least, one industry opposes it as it struggles to come up with an answer to a growing problem: how to reduce carbon emissions. E-fuel, or synthetic fuel, promises to be a drop-in solution that not only keeps current cars on the road but also ensures they produce virtually zero net emissions. You have every right to doubt.

This story originally appeared in Volume 14 of Road & Track.

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The idea is to create liquid fuels using renewable or zero-emission energy sources. E-fuels are carbon-based, like gasoline, but they are not extracted from underground oil reservoirs. Instead, with sunlight, air, carbon-capture techniques and a degree of chemistry, one can create a substance suitable for storage in a fuel tank and combustible in an internal-combustion engine.

With e-fuels, there are two interrelated challenges: cost and efficiency. A study published in 2016 in Energy and Fuels, a journal of the American Chemical Society, estimated the final cost of the synthetic fuel to be $3.80 to $9.20 per gallon, but this was in 2010 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, this is $5.16 to $12.50 per gallon. Porsche, which itself is looking into the e-fuel business, recently said that prices could eventually drop to around $7.60 per gallon or lower. But just two years ago, Porsche claimed the cost was closer to $37 a gallon. If break-room chitchat says $5 per gallon is expensive, imagine that same gallon costs $30. The weather won’t even make it into the conversation.

Price is a serious issue due to the lack of energy efficiency of e-fuels. Let’s say a utility plant produces a certain amount of energy to drive a car. What percentage of this actually goes into spinning the charkha? This is important because what

Whether a vehicle is electric or uses synthetic fuel, it all starts with power generation. According to a 2020 SAE study, about 40 to 70 percent of the power produced will go to the wheels of an EV. That number is only six to 18 percent for an e-fuel car. It is possible that an e-fuel car may require up to 10 times more energy than an electric car to cover the same distance.

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Efficiency is related to cost. Driving becomes more expensive as more electricity is required, regardless of where it comes from or how the vehicle uses it. Are people simply willing to spend more to continue driving flammable cars? For some, the answer is yes; The V-8 engines are great and make a worthy sound. But people in general hate high gas prices. That alone should raise doubts about the wide-scale adoption of synthetic fuels in passenger cars.

Yet e-fuels should have plenty of applications to prove their worth. One major advantage of synthetic fuels like gasoline is their incredibly high energy density. You can pack a lot of bang into a small space, and they weigh a lot less than bulky lithium-ion battery packs. For industries such as aviation, synthetic fuels may be one of the easiest ways to curb emissions.

E-fuel could help the racing series continue the spectacle of roaring motorsport with a low carbon footprint. For the public, $30 per gallon is an exorbitant price, but for a Formula 1 team, the expense is ridiculously modest. In fact, Formula 1 has said it will be net zero carbon by 2030 and 100 percent sustainable fuel by 2026. The series also mentions that most road cars around the world can use this fuel. I’ll start saving now.

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