In Europe there is a double urgency to transform the energy system: put an end to dependency on russian fossil fuels and tackle the climate crisis. Regarding the latter, as part of the “Fit for 55” measurement package”, the end of combustion cars is coming from 2035. But could e-fuels be their salvation?
On paper it could be, yes, since e-fuels or synthetic fuels do not come from oil and are considered emission neutral: they are artificially manufactured from air, water and energy, and in their combustion they return to the atmosphere the CO₂ captured for their manufacture. In practice, this does not convince the EU. We see why.
What are synthetic fuels and where do they come from?
Synthetic fuels or e-fuels they are liquid fuelssimilar to common hydrocarbons such as gasoline or diesel that we use today, but unlike these, they do not come from fossil energy sources.
And it is that for it to be considered a “green fuel” the energy used for its manufacture must be renewable, as the electricity needed for the separation of hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis.
In addition, the carbon dioxide needed to react with hydrogen to form methane (which in turn would be reformulated as a synthetic substitute for the usual fuel), is filtered out of the air.
Using renewable energy and capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere makes it a carbon neutral fuel when burned, i.e. would not produce new emissions of greenhouse gases, since it would return to the atmosphere the CO₂ captured for its manufacture.
Thus, in theory, a gasoline or diesel car that runs on e-fuel would have the same CO₂ emissions as an electric car. In other words, it would be a zero-emission car by using e-fuel. In addition, it does not affect the food chain, does not promote deforestation and can be produced industrially in large quantities.
Main advantages and disadvantages of e-fuels
This process -which we have summarized to the fullest here- is actually complex, and although e-fuel has some advantages over other fuels, it is not exempt from drawbacks.
To cite examples, among its advantages is that can be transported safely and less complex than hydrogen over long distances and stored for a long period of time, like today’s gasoline or diesel.
Furthermore, it would not be difficult or expensive adapt the distribution and storage chain of fuels that already exists for synthetic fuels.
It must also be taken into account that the energy density of these fuels is greater than that of other alternatives such as hydrogen, that is, they are capable of concentrating a large amount of energy in a small space. And that is an advantage in the face of long journeys made by large means of transport.
Thus, e-fuels are not only interesting for cars, since can also be used on modern planes, boats and truckss, to those that offer benefits similar to those of conventional fuels.
Among the negative aspects of synthetic fuels is that its production is a complex process with many intermediate stages, which depends on renewable energy to make sense. And although these are booming, not all countries can reach their mass production without depending on the supply of others.
It is also important to note that it is not a cheap or entirely productive process: in the best of cases, it converts half of the electricity energy that has been spent for it into liquid or gaseous fuels.
To this we must add that, although the cost of renewable energies is expected to end up falling over time, right now it is high. The same goes for the cost of an e-fuel manufacturing plant, as the heart of the system that allows electrolysis is especially expensive.
Los cálculos del International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) serve to get an idea, as they predict that in 2030 the cost of manufacturing e-fuel would still be between 3 and 4 euros per litre. On the other hand, the ICCT adds that “the efficiency from the well to the car” in the case of synthetic fuel is only 16%, while it would be 72% in the case of an electric car.
Companies that are already investing in synthetic fuels
Despite its disadvantages, many large companies, such as the traditional oil majors, are investing in e-fuels, as well as some car brands, which seek to extend the life of combustion engines despite Europe’s reluctance.
An example of this is Repsol, which plans to build in Bilbao one of the largest synthetic fuel production plants in the world, which wants to be operational in 2024. The investment for this is 60 million euros, the objective is to produce 50 barrels of e-fuel per day during the pilot phase in 2023, and then move on to the commercial distribution of e- fuels to the transport sector.
Also airlines such as KLM or Iberia and other companies in the aviation industry such as Boeing are betting on synthetic fuels. And it is that with the ReFuelEU aviation initiative, it will be mandatory in 2035 that at least 20% of the aviation fuel components must be of sustainable origin with a minimum of 5% e-fuel. This proportion will be increased every 5 years.
In addition, European companies have committed to making their flights net zero emissions by 2050, increasing the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). According to proposalthe SAF could reduce polluting emissions from this sector by 34%.
In the automotive sector, Porsche is one of the brands that has been researching e-fuels for the longest time. Among other projects, the manufacturer is carrying out the construction of the Haru Oni pilot plant for e-fuels in Punta Arenas, in the south of Chile, and has just announced a new investment of 68.2 million euros in HIF Global LLC, a group of Chilean companies that develops international projects to install synthetic fuel production plants.
At the moment, the first project led by Porsche seeks to produce around 130,000 liters of e-fuels as of this year, and in the following two phases, the capacity will increase to around 55 million liters per year by 2024 and around 550 million by 2026.
Audi has also been researching in this field since 2009, but perhaps it is the German Bosch the one that has been most interested in these fuels. In addition, the company has just announced that it will invest 500 million in hydrogen electrolysis until the end of the decade.
Regarding the countries that lead the interest in e-fuels, on our continent, Norway and Germany are at the forefront.
Why Europe doesn’t want e-fuels
With an increasingly high production, refining and tax cost (local taxes, very unfavorable carbon market for oil companies), everything indicates that the price of fossil fuel will not be affordable for everyone in the coming years. In fact, it could be said that it is beginning to not be, with values that are already approaching 3 euros per liter.
This would be the best chance for e-fuels to enter the game, and not precisely in new cars, but for those that are still in circulation. There are currently approximately 280 million cars in circulation in Europe and it is expected that by 2035 there will be 30 million zero-emission cars on the road.
Although in the next 13 years a few million cars will end up disappearing from the roads due to the end of their useful life, thanks to new ways of moving like car sharing or the rise of public transport (being very optimistic), there will still be as many millions of vehicles in circulation.
And it is that, we must remember that the combustion car does not will die when they ban it.
The problem is that for the European Commission a Zero Emissions car (ZEV) is a vehicle that does not emit CO₂ through the exhaust…. And a car that runs on e-fuel will emit CO₂, even if it is what has been captured in the production of the fuel.
As it has just been ratified that the EU close the door to new combustion cars by 2035 (which not only sentences traditional gasoline and diesel, but also hybrids), it seems that the hopes of e-fuels for cars, vans and other vehicles that circulate on our roads are beginning to fade.
But hope is the last thing to be lost, and there is the example of Germany, which has decided that will vote in the negative to the European guidelines. “In the Federal Government, we will not agree with this European legislation“, assured the prime minister. According to him, open technology is an essential part of the market economy.
Germany is the engine of the automobile industry on our continent, and its refusal could be followed by others such as France, which advocates not include in that ban to the plug-in hybrid cars and give them more time to live to ease the transition.
It must be remembered that in order for the European Commission project approved by the European Parliament to come to fruition, it is essential that the ministers of the countries of the European Union give their approval.
And then the final text may include some escape routes like the famous ferrari amendment, or other measures focused in some way on not completely killing the internal combustion engine. Here, the e-fuels will play their cards again.