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Are synthetic fuels a better alternative to electric cars?

Rory and the team look at how synthetic fuels could keep petrol and diesel cars on the road after 2030, and whether they're a better solution than electric cars.

With the sale of brand-new petrol and diesel cars coming to an end in 2030, almost all eyes are on electric cars as the future of automotive.
Some, however, are busy looking at alternative solutions – including synthetic fuels. But what are they, and will they really compete with electric cars?

What are synthetic fuels?

Synthetic fuels are a carbon-neutral fuel type that can be used in internal combustion engines (ICE).
Carbon dioxide is captured during the manufacturing process (detailed below) and can be used to produce synthetic petrol or diesel and natural gas. If you run the fuel refinery on renewable energy like wind power, you’ve got the ultimate in green fuel, without a battery pack in sight. This means you can theoretically drive your Mustang and reduce the carbon footprint in doing so. The best bit is synthetic petrol can be dispensed from the existing infrastructure of regular filling stations, so you can refill your car in seconds as opposed to minutes.

How are synthetic fuels made?

Synthetic fuels are made by separating water into its constituent parts of oxygen and hydrogen, via electrolysis.
The hydrogen is then mixed with CO2 to make synthetic methanol, which you can then refine into synthetic petrol or diesel to fuel your existing ICE car in a way that effectively consumes CO2 rather than pumping it into the atmosphere.

Will synthetic fuels replace electric cars?

For now, electric cars are the realistic bet. Processing facilities for synthetic fuels are still expensive and uncommon, and there’s more work to be done for them to widely available at an affordable rate.
Electrolysis, as the name implies, involves a lot of electricity so there needs to be a sustainable and affordable way of generating enough power to meet demand. While electric cars are streets ahead (pun intended), synthetic fuels shouldn’t be written off entirely. Existing fuel-stations can be used to distribute them – meaning the infrastructure is basically there. And, a hybrid running on synthetic fuel could prove a winner on all fronts: cheap to run, fuel efficient and (if renewable energy is used) great for the environment.

Will synthetic fuels save petrol cars?

Who’s investing in synthetic fuels?

Porsche, along with Siemens, the German government and various other interested parties are chucking huge investment at the production of “low carbon liquid fuel” (which they’re calling ‘eFuel’). Their plans include a new refinery that will be able to produce 550 million litres of the eFuel within five years.

Why are synthetic fuels being developed?

Companies like Porsche can use initiatives like synthetic fuels to keep their motorsport programme running with a clean conscience, fuel the sports cars you can drive at its experience centres and – ultimately – to sell to the owners of their existing road cars to keep them running, classics included.
Heritage is a big part of many manufacturers’ brands, and rightly so. There have been some incredible cars over the years, and no-one really wants to see them legislated off the roads in decades to come. Synthetic fuels could help keep these great cars running in a greener, cleaner future.

What’s the downside to synthetic fuels?

Obviously, nothing’s perfect. Creating synthetic fuel needs a lot of energy and, unfortunately, we’re still likely to rely on fossil fuels to make clean fuels unless we can get enough wind, sunshine, waves or whatever it is we plan on getting that power from.
It’s not entirely hopeless: there’s definitely enough guaranteed wind to turn the turbines to power this new facility in Chile, South America. The downside there being it’s Chile, South America, and getting all that synthetic fuel over is going to be tricky at best. There’s no perfect answer. Electric cars are the closest solution, and ongoing innovation and improvement in that area mean a lot of today’s pain points are getting tackled head on, and fast. Synthetic fuels are another solution that could develop over time. And if it helps power legacy vehicles, or vehicles that just can’t run on electricity at this stage, and reduce our impact on the climate? It’s worth investigating.
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