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Synthetic fuels explained: Is Carbon neutral fuel the future?

The UK government's confirmation of its commitment to banning new pure petrol and diesel cars by 2030 has sparked numerous practical and ideological questions. Will there be sufficient infrastructure to support this swift transition to electric vehicles? Can the car industry meet the demand? Will there be enough charging points and renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear to power them, rather than relying on fossil fuel-burning power stations such as coal and gas?

Post-2030, vehicles with a 'significant all-electric range,' primarily plug-in hybrids, will still be available for purchase, but only for an additional five years. The focus of the law is on Electric Vehicles (EVs) due to their efficient energy use, far surpassing Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) alternatives and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Even if the electricity for EVs comes from fossil fuel power stations, their CO2 emissions remain significantly lower. There is ongoing debate about the overall cleanliness of EVs over their lifespan, including concerns about the environmental impact of battery material mining.

However, it's an unavoidable truth that some forms of transport are unsuitable for electrification, especially those involving heavy loads and long distances: container shipping, long-haul aircraft, and long-distance road transport. The core issue is that the energy density of current battery technology is far lower than that of the liquid fuels currently in use, such as diesel, bunker fuel, and jet fuel. The sheer volume and mass of batteries required would be impractical. For example, even with batteries 30 times more energy-dense, an electric-powered A320, according to Airbus, would only cover a fifth of the range of the current jet-engined A320 while carrying half its payload.

Aviation, long-distance shipping, and road haulage are not disappearing, and despite improved fuel efficiencies, they will continue to burn fossil fuels and emit CO2. This is why developments in carbon-neutral synthetic fuels are crucial. These advancements can benefit not only existing petrol, diesel, and hybrid cars but also offer hope to enthusiasts who wish to continue using internal combustion engine cars long after new ICE cars have been banned.

Coryton, a UK-based fuel specialist, has already introduced its first sustainable fuel, tailored for classic vehicles and priced between £3.80 and £5.24 per liter, available for public purchase at Bicester Heritage. Companies like Bosch are actively working on carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, acknowledging that many cars on the road in 2030 will still have petrol or diesel engines. These "legacy vehicles" can still contribute to reducing CO2 emissions, even as volumes of carbon-neutral fuels continue to increase. This transition offers enthusiasts the possibility of continuing to enjoy cars with internal combustion engines, even after the sales of new ICE cars have been prohibited.

Stellantis, a major industry conglomerate, has committed to supporting research in efuel development. They have determined that 28 million vehicles sold since 2014 are compatible with efuels without requiring any engine modifications. These tests, conducted with drop-in efuels developed by Aramco, met various criteria including engine power, emissions, reliability, and startability. Stellantis estimates a significant reduction of 400 million tons of CO2 in Europe between 2025 and 2050 if all 28 million compatible vehicles switch to efuels.

Currently, the main focus is to make efuels more affordable and accessible to the general public. Simultaneously, Aramco is exploring the potential of specialized efuels for high-performance applications, similar to the high-octane fuels commonly available at gas stations today. Amer Amer, Transport Chief Technologist at Aramco, mentioned ongoing collaboration with the FIA to test and demonstrate efuels in prestigious events like F1 and Le Mans Classic. The aim is for these advancements to eventually become accessible to everyday consumers. In the world of motorsports, F1 is set to exclusively adopt drop-in efuels following the powertrain regulation change in 2026. Aramco's synthetic fuel has already been successfully used at Le Mans Classic, demonstrating its effectiveness in older vehicles. Stellantis' Vice President of Propulsion Systems, Christian Mueller, expressed confidence in recommending efuels for various engines, although he acknowledged that specific formulations might be necessary for niche classic car technologies.

Porsche, a significant player in the automotive industry, is heavily investing in synthetic fuels. They have established a dedicated plant in Chile, which utilizes water, carbon dioxide, and energy from wind turbines, making the facility almost CO2-neutral in fuel production. Additionally, Porsche is exploring the implementation of a 'direct air capture' (DAC) system to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, further contributing to a CO2-neutral production solution. The methods for producing synthetic liquid fuels have been in existence for approximately a century, and production continues today, with supplies sourced from coal and natural gas. Carbon-neutral synthetic fuels can be produced through two main methods. The first method involves utilizing captured carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide from the atmosphere, as planned by Porsche, or from industrial processes like steelmaking. These gases are then synthesized with hydrogen obtained from water through electrolysis, resulting in what is known as efuels. The second category encompasses synthetic biofuels, which are derived from biomass such as forestry waste. In this process, the biomass is gasified and then catalyzed with hydrogen using chemical or thermal methods.

What’s the difference between synthetic fuels and fossil fuels?

There are numerous advantages to sustainable synthetic fuels. They can seamlessly replace conventional fossil fuels, functioning as direct substitutes due to their similar volume and energy density. This compatibility allows them to operate with existing petrol and diesel engine technology, utilising the established fuel infrastructure for storage and distribution. Additionally, they are cleaner alternatives, producing fewer particulates and nitrogen oxides.

However, there are drawbacks to consider. Presently, these fuels are significantly more expensive, with efuel diesel costing around £4 per litre and biofuel petrol at £0.80 per litre. Nonetheless, there's potential for cost reduction through innovative development. Another concern is the energy-intensive nature of synthetic fuel production processes, which involve extracting hydrogen from water, capturing carbon from the atmosphere, and synthesis. To ensure carbon neutrality, this energy must come from renewable sources.

The push for sustainable synthetic fuels is expected to be driven by the aviation, shipping, and road haulage sectors. While this transition might occur voluntarily or due to environmental pressure, it demands substantial development and scaling. A report from The Royal Society, titled 'Sustainable Synthetic Carbon-Based Fuels for Transport,' estimates that the additional sustainable power needed to produce jet e-fuel for Europe could range between 1400 and 2100 TWh per year. To put this in context, the total electricity generated in the EU in 2016 was approximately 3000 TWh, with 51% sourced sustainably.

The report also suggests that bulk production of e-fuels will likely be concentrated in regions where sustainable energy is abundant and affordable, such as West Africa with coastal wind energy and desert solar power. In Europe, Sunfire operates an e-fuels plant in Norway, utilizing hydroelectric power to produce what they call 'Blue Crude', aiming to achieve a cost of under €2 per litre. Sunfire emphasizes that their crude can not only create carbon-neutral fuels but also serve as a raw material for 3000 products currently derived from fossil crude, including items like chewing gums, credit cards, trainers, and smartphones.

Despite the UK government's plans to expedite the ban on petrol, diesel, and hybrid vehicles, some groups doubt the rapid transition to electric vehicles will suffice to meet environmental goals. Supplying carbon-neutral fuel for Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars, trucks, and planes could be a significant step toward achieving carbon neutrality. Therefore, the phase-out of the internal combustion engine might not be imminent. Efuels and synthetic biofuels offer the possibility of enjoying the distinctive character of the internal combustion engine without guilt, potentially for many years to come.

Where synthetic fuels are most needed

Synthetic fuels might provide the solution for achieving carbon-neutral emissions in several sectors. Considering the current progress, it appears that it will take a considerable amount of time before we see long-haul airplanes, massive container ships, and possibly even heavy goods vehicles powered by electricity. Synthetic fuels might provide the solution for achieving carbon neutral.


'Alice' stands as a potential pioneer among electric-powered commercial airplanes. Manufactured by the Israeli company Eviation, this nine-seater aircraft is equipped with three electric motors and boasts a claimed range of 600 miles, with production slated for later this year. Expanding this technology to full-size airliners poses challenges due to the impracticality of the required battery pack's size and weight; the feasibility simply doesn't align. A more viable alternative is the development of hybrid airplanes designed for short-haul and regional flights.

Collaborative efforts involving Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Siemens are underway, focusing on the BAe 146 model. In this initiative, one of the aircraft's four Lycoming turbofan engines has been replaced by a 2700bhp Siemens electric motor connected to 2000kg of batteries. The objective is to utilize electric power during take-off, aiming to reduce emissions and noise pollution. However, long-haul flights contribute significantly to aviation emissions, constituting 80 percent of the total. Existing technologies fall short of meeting the European Commission's ambitious goals for aviation by 2050, which include a 75 percent reduction in CO2 and a 90 percent decrease in NOx emissions. The solution, however, lies in carbon-neutral jet fuel.

Electric trucks

Companies in Europe, the US, and China are actively developing prototype electric trucks intended to replace diesel vehicles for short- and medium-haul transportation needs. Among these efforts, Tesla stands out as a proponent of electrification for long-distance road haulage. In 2017, Tesla unveiled the Tesla Semi, a remarkably aerodynamic truck featuring an all-electric tractor unit. Tesla asserted a range of 500 miles, which is approximately half that of a diesel truck. Additionally, Tesla claimed that, with their proposed solar-powered 'Megacharger' network, the Semi could recharge its batteries for 400 miles in just 30 minutes.

However, skepticism emerged from Mercedes' truck division, whose chief contended that the Semi's specifications contradicted the laws of physics. Several studies also concluded that, at least in the medium term, electric vehicles (EVs) were not practical for long-distance haulage. This was due to the substantial battery mass, amounting to a third of the payload, as well as the absence of necessary charging infrastructure. Despite these debates, Tesla reported having received 2000 orders for the Semi by mid-2019 and announced plans for low-volume production starting in late 2020, indicating that the reality of Tesla's claims might be confirmed relatively soon.


The Yara Birkeland, heralded as the world's inaugural electric container ship, has been commissioned by a Norwegian fertiliser manufacturer and is slated for operation by 2022. Despite its pioneering status, this vessel is relatively small, accommodating a mere 120 containers. Its intended route spans just 30 miles between ports in Norway, emphasising its limited scope and slow pace.

In contrast, contemporary diesel container ships boast significantly larger capacities, capable of transporting 4000 containers, a staggering 150 times more, across distances 400 times greater at speeds three to four times faster. To illustrate, a diesel ship covering a non-stop journey from Asia to Europe in 31 days consumes over 4500 metric tons of bunker fuel. In the case of an electric ship attempting the same voyage, it would require approximately 100,000 tons of lithium-ion batteries, occupying roughly 40 percent of the cargo space, underlining the challenges faced by electric vessels in long-distance travel.

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