Sounding the death knell for the ICE may be premature
Several car manufacturers have embraced electric fuels to make their combustion engines carbon-free and extend their lifeline. At the same time, biofuel organisations are pushing their case to decrease the dependency on unstable oil supply. Here’s everything you wanted to know about new fuels that might save old car technology.
The European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, recently made a seemingly strange appeal by urging European car manufacturers not to abandon the combustion engine. He stressed that the technology will be important in the near future to maintain European competitiveness. Ironically, that same European Commission has vowed to go all-electric by 2035.
The crux is that large parts of the world will still need the ICE engine a while after Europe has reached its deadline. The changing mobility needs aren’t on par on every continent.
OEMs are most certainly not deaf to the call, especially in Asia. But the challenge remains to make that combustion engine run clean, which is not impossible. That’s where alternative fuels can play a distinct role.
Which fuels are under development?
Alternative fuels have a broad scope. For example, they also include by-products from petroleum like LPG. But it’s the carbon-reducing solutions that are of a keen interest for investment and development. So OEMs are primarily looking into eFuels and, to a lesser extent, biofuels, which aren't derived from oil.
eFuels are also called "synthetic fuels", "power-to-gas", "power-to-x", "drop-in fuels" and even "liquid sun". Customers can use them in existing ICE engines with minor adaptations. Also, they have no impact whatsoever on the current filling station network. And, last but not least, they provide ample range.
How do these alternative liquid fuels work?
- eFuel: with renewable electricity, hydrogen is made, in itself an eFuel. But mixed with externally extracted CO2 (e.g. from the atmosphere) this hydrogen can be turned into e-methane, e-diesel, e-LNG or e-kerosene. Mixing it with nitrogen makes e-ammonia.
- Biofuel: made from crops. Wheat produces ethanol for use in petrol engines; rapeseed makes biodiesel. These are already blended into our current fuels by European law. Advanced biofuels can be made from waste and algae.
What are the advantages and disadvantages?
- There is no need for an expensive change of technologies
- eFuel is climate neutral in a circular way. The CO2 emitted during driving should be equated with the extracted carbon dioxides bound in the production process.
- eFuel and biofuel can be mixed with conventional fuels.
- Refills are quick, and range isn’t jeopardised compared to battery power.
- First-generation biofuel competes with feedstuffs.
- The CO2 emissions of biofuels are under much debate. Theoretically, they lie significantly lower than fossil fuels but according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), ethanol, for example, emits only 2% less CO2 compared to petrol because of production emissions.
- Advanced biofuel is challenging to scale up.
- The production process of eFuels is inherently inefficient. Compared to a BEV (72%) an ICE on eFuel only reaches an efficiency of 16%.
Who is investing?
Toyota is one of the key manufacturers with a broad exposure to every local market in the world. Together with some Japanese allies like Mazda (there is an eFuel Alliance in Asia), the company is betting on combustion engines running on pure hydrogen as an eFuel. This strategy doesn’t impede the further development of fuel cells.
The Hyundai Group has teamed up with Saudi-Arabian oil company Aramco. The carmaker will make a lean-burning engine to further optimize carbon emissions from a synthetic fuel developed by Aramco. Together with Kia, Hyundai regards it as a transitional driveline towards full electrification.
Chinese group Geely is testing cars driving on e-methanol. The car maker has an experience of 17 years in synthetic fuel. Pilots are under evaluation in Iceland and Denmark.
Over in Europe, Porsche is investing seriously and has acquired an essential stake in High Innovation Fuel global (HIF), an international developer of eFuels. It regards green methane as a guardian angel for its legacy boxer engine in the 911 sports car. The latter is also a motivation for Toyota.
One of the other vital players was Audi. But the company, which ran a multiple year engagement, has turned lukewarm on synthetic fuels, now claiming that the most efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions is battery-electric mobility.
Will these fuels save the combustion engine?
It doesn’t seem likely for biofuel. An irresponsible amount of farmland would be sacrificed to compensate for the current oil supplies, and the production of second-generation biofuel is too complex on an industrial scale.
But also for synthetic fuels, the outlook is bleak, at least for car transportation. While it is difficult to make price predictions, the ICCT responded to an announcement from supplier Bosch, who stated that the cost of now expensive eFuels would sink to €1.2 per liter in 2030. The ICCT called this very unlikely and calculated a tariff of around €3-4 per litre, which would imply a much bigger impact on the total cost of ownership (TCO) compared to battery-powered cars.
Therefore, liquid eFuels will most likely find their way to the maritime and aviation sectors as an alternative to gaseous hydrogen, which is complex to store in these long haul carriers.
As for the developing countries, Commissioner Breton refers to, they will hardly be able to cough up the investment and consumer price.