Porsche showed off a new pilot plant in Chile’s Patagonia last month — not one that produces cars, but one that makes e-fuel, a synthetic alternative to conventional gasoline made from air and water using electricity. The plant, a joint project with ExxonMobil and other energy companies, “is a symbol of hope in the fight against climate change, for a more sustainable future – and one that may also contain the music of a Porsche engine,” Porsche boasted in a press release from February 14th.
The dream that car companies like Porsche are selling with e-fuel is that drivers can keep their internal combustion engines while fighting climate change. They just need to switch to e-fuel.
When it comes to cleaning up climate pollution from road transport, e-fuel is not a panacea
The reality is that e-fuel is not a panacea when it comes to cleaning up climate pollution from road transport. It is far too expensive and inefficient to replace electric vehicles. And it still gives off CO2 emissions when burned that warm the planet.
Despite those shortcomings, e-fuel managed to derail or at least delay the EU’s plan to effectively ban the sale of internal combustion engine cars by 2035. Climate policy was almost a foregone conclusion, with a final vote expected yesterday. Germany threw a last-minute curveball and withdrew its support for the policy unless traditional cars can stay on the road as long as they run on e-fuel.
The gas tank of a vehicle can be filled with synthetic e-fuel just like gasoline. Driving on e-fuel also causes exhaust pollution such as petrol. But e-fuel can be made with renewable energy, which is the reason for the climate argument for it. And the carbon dioxide emissions it generates could potentially be negated during the process of making the fuel, making it nearly carbon neutral.
E-fuel can be made by taking carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and hydrogen (H2) from water molecules. That CO2 and H2 can then be used to build hydrocarbons, the main component of oil, gas and coal. An alternative method, which Porsche relies on at the Patagonia plant, is to use the carbon dioxide and hydrogen to make methanol which is then converted to gasoline.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It’s a way of using air and water to create an alternative to fossil fuels. The challenge is that the process takes a lot of energy. And the technologies it relies on – carbon removal facilities and electrolysers to split water molecules – are still prohibitively expensive.
Even when renewable electricity is used (and there is still not enough renewable energy online to meet climate targets), a lot is wasted. According to the non-profit research group the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), nearly 50 percent of the energy input is lost when converting that electricity into hydrogen and then converting that hydrogen into e-fuel.
Because of that inefficiency, a car running on e-fuel consumes significantly more electricity than an electric car would use to travel the same distance. According to the ICCT, EVs are ultimately about four times more energy efficient.
This inefficiency entails significant costs. No one makes commercial-scale e-fuel these days, but that would probably cost about $7 a gallon, according to Stephanie Searle, director of ICCT’s Fuels Program.
The costs are “ridiculously high”
The costs are “ridiculously high,” she says, and won’t be low enough for e-fuel to become a viable option to clean up pollution from cars. When asked what role e-fuel could play in decarbonising passenger transport, her answer was blunt: “in short, none.”
There is a little more optimism about e-fuel from Roland Dittmeyer, director of the Institute for Micro Process Engineering at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany. Dittmeyer drives an electric vehicle, but thinks e-fuel could be a useful alternative for someone who doesn’t have access to charging infrastructure connected to a reliable, clean electricity grid.
KIT produces e-fuel as part of a national initiative. The small demonstration project is also supported by Volkswagen, Audi, a subsidiary of Ford, Shell and other industry partners. But cars aren’t actually the focus of the study – planes are.
The best use of e-fuel is in aviation, both Dittmeyer and Searle agree. “The priority for passenger cars is the battery, [but] the chances are slim that you will ever fly a long distance with batteries,” says Dittmeyer The edge.
The best use of e-fuel is in aviation
Batteries are an easy way to run cars on renewable energy. But battery technology is still too heavy for aircraft, which will most likely have to rely mainly on alternative fuels to take off in a less polluting way. And Dittmeyer worries that all the drama surrounding cars running on e-fuel could detract from the research needed to develop the synthetic aviation fuel.
Meanwhile, the push to create an e-fuel loophole in the EU’s climate policy is just an attempt to keep gas-guzzling cars on the road, Searle worries. “We’re afraid it’s a procrastination technique to try and save the internal combustion engine and create a future for it,” she says. And if they keep combustion engines on the road, it can be very difficult for regulators to keep track of whether they actually run on e-fuel or plain old gasoline.
As we’ve seen, policy plays a key role in driving EV adoption. Global EV sales fell this year as China and many countries in Europe cut subsidies. EV sales had skyrocketed before that shift, rising 60 percent by 2022. For what it’s worth, Porsche is betting on both e-fuel and electric vehicles. It plans to make 80 percent of its sales from electric vehicles by the end of the decade.