Synthetic or electronic fuels, also known as e-fuel, have recently become the focus of a debate on stricter emissions regulations in the EU. The goal is to reach zero emissions from new vehicles by 2035, effectively banning gasoline and diesel engines.
These “new” fuels, to contextualize, are produced from renewable sources such as air or water. The e-fuel is generated through a process called “carbon dioxide capture and utilization” (CCU), which involves extract CO2 from the atmosphere and combine it with hydrogen obtained from water by electrolysis.
The result is a liquid fuel that can be used in conventional internal combustion engines without the need for significant modifications.
When the new regulations related to this novelty were about to be approved, some countries such as Germany argued that other zero emission technologies should be considered. They asked the European Commission to come up with a proposal on how combustion engines could continue to run on synthetic fuels beyond 2035.
Other countries including Italy, the Czech Republic and Poland have also raised concerns about the law, raising the possibility that there is enough support to block it.
But this agreement goes further and opens up a host of questions about the feasibility, cost, and long-term realities of vehicles running on synthetic fuel.
E-fuel, opinions divided: angel or devil?
Proponents of synthetic fuels say that these initiatives support environmental protection by displacing fossil fuels and reducing overall CO2 emissionswhile improving the use of facilities for the production of renewable electricity.
They further state that since these synthetic fuels are free of sulfur, nitrogen, and aromatic compounds, they can be used to minimize or completely prevent the emission of hazardous gases such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter from combustion engines.
In much of the freight and long-distance transportation—heavy goods, aircraft, and ships—for which direct electrification is impractical due to technical or financial issues, synthetic fuels are particularly suitable for achieving a relatively rapid reduction in emissions.
On the other hand, there are those voices that ensure that this process can be energy inefficient compared to other direct electrification options, such as electric vehicles.
Although e-fuel can reduce CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels, it still there are emissions associated with its production and transportation. Additionally, the CO2 capture process can require large amounts of energy and resources, which could have a negative impact on the environment.
Added to this is a possible “dieselgate” but with e-fuel. “Dieselgate” refers to the scandal in the auto industry that was revealed in 2015, where it was discovered that several automakers had rigged the emissions tests of their diesel vehicles to meet pollution standards.
The concern lies in the fact that “if e-fuels become a mandatory requirement without sufficient controls and adequate regulations, there could be manipulation of the production, distribution and emissions processes associated with them”, explains Jorge Cairós, Responsible for Computer Hoy. in Energy Transformation.
“There is a major gap. In the future, the car would have to be equipped with technology that detects whether it is being fueled with efuel or fossil fuels. And this technology does not currently exist,” explains Alex Keynes, a consultant on clean vehicles and vehicles for Newtral. environment in Transportation & Environment.
Critics point out that manufacturing synthetic fuels is very expensive and consumes a lot of energy. Using synthetic fuels in an ICE (internal combustion engine) car requires about 5 times more renewable electricity than running a battery electric vehicle, according to a 2021 article in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Julia Poliscanova, Senior Director of Vehicles and Electric Mobility at Transport & Environment, explains that “Europe needs to move forward and bring clarity to its auto industry, which is in a race with the US and China. Synthetic fuels are an expensive diversion and hugely inefficient transition to electric facing Europe’s automakers.
So why are synthetic fuels being endorsed as an alternative?
E-fuel supporters say they offer an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions without having to replace all vehicles with an electric one. They can also be stored at room temperature and shipped around the world unlike electricity.
Those who back them believe that a move to clarify regulations could quickly boost production.
Haru Oni Demonstration Plant, a synthetic fuel plant that began operations in Punta Arenas, Chile. Source: HIF GLOBAL.
“If market conditions and production rules are right, synthetic fuels can start production in 2025 and increase steadily to enable replacement of conventional fuels by 2050,” says industry lobby group eFuel Alliance. .
In Germany, the lack of support comes from the approximately 800,000 jobs that currently depend on the production of combustion engine vehicles. Recent opinion polls have also found that 68% of people oppose the EU ban on petrol and diesel cars.
An analysis also carried out by Transport & Environment (T&E) found that by 2035, there will only be enough synthetic fuels for around 2% of Europe’s vehicles. That means that only 5 million of the 287 million cars in the EU could run on these fuels.
Another recent report found that synthetic gasoline could cost more than €2.80 per liter at the pump in Germany by 2030. That’s almost 50% more expensive than regular gasoline today —The average driver could cost at least 2,300 euros a year to refuel his car with this fuel.
“The exorbitant cost of synthetic fuel would only be within the reach of the wealthiest drivers, prompting some drivers who are buying combustion engines certified to run on synthetic gasoline to skirt the rules and buy fossil fuel instead,” he argues. the organization.
Comparison cost e-fuel vs. batteries. Source: TYNDP Electricity.
With all this and although e-fuels have certain advantages, such as the reuse of existing infrastructure, the versatility of use and the potential reduction of CO2 emissions, It seems that its viability in the short and medium term is limited.
There are big challenges to solve along the way in terms of energy efficiency, production costs, availability of renewable energy and development of adequate infrastructure.
Giants such as Exxon Mobil —the largest US oil company— or Chevron have already announced that they are already carrying out tests with their synthetic fuels, but they warn that “making them affordable for customers will require government support,” according to Reuters.
At the moment electric vehicles continue to gain traction due to benefits that seem to outweigh their drawbacksor at least that is what they do not want to show.