Reality check: What role can e-fuels play in reducing car emissions?

'Carbon-neutral' fuels such as e-fuels could complement electrification, but face significant challenges.

By Charlie Martin, Autocar UK calendar 13 Jun 2023 Views icon5278 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp

As the UK government’s 2030 ban on new pure-combustion cars approaches, questions are being raised about whether alternative fuel solutions also have a role to play in reducing transport emissions, alongside electrification.

A report by the Transport Select Committee recently accused the government of “putting all its eggs in one basket” by effectively mandating a widespread transition to battery-electric vehicles from 2035. 

The report cited shortcomings in EV charging infrastructure and a shortage of raw materials, which may slow or prevent a smooth transition to EVs. “As the cliff edge of 2030 (2035, 2040 and 2050) approaches and minds are concentrated, reality will bite,” it said. The committee urged a “reality check” on the government’s transport strategy. “Addressing the existing [petrol and diesel] fleet will be decisive in achieving the UK’s climate goals,” it said.

Currently, the plan is to ban sales of all new pure-petrol and pure-diesel vehicles from 2030. Hybrids with an as yet undefined “significant zero-emission capability” get a five-year stay of execution, although this may change. 

The European Parliament was set to follow a similar course. It almost passed an effective ban on new combustion-engined cars and commercial vehicles by requiring a 100% reduction in tailpipe CO2 emissions from 2035. However, Germany, Italy and other EU member states rebelled, successfully arguing the case for carbon-neutral fuels such as e-fuels, whose production methods are claimed to offset the carbon emissions from burning them.

Asked whether the UK would follow the EU and allow carbon-neutral ICE cars to remain on sale after 2030, energy secretary Grant Shapps told reporters it would not. “We’ve always been more forward-leaning on this stuff than the EU,” said Shapps. 

There are serious concerns around manufacturing carbon-neutral fuels. As with fossil fuels, burning them produces poisonous carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, which pose a health risk for local communities. In the case of e-fuels, there is a huge energy requirement to overcome in producing the necessary hydrogen. 

According to a 2019 report by the International Energy Agency, producing all of today’s industrial hydrogen output from electricity would create an electricity demand of 3600TWh. This is almost 1000TWh more than the EU’s entire energy production last year, of which just 39.4% came from renewables. And that just to match today’s hydrogen output, not the surplus needed for the mass industrialisation of e-fuels; using electricity that could less wastefully power battery-electric cars.

Yoann Gimbert, e-mobility analyst for environmental lobby group Transport & Environment, said in October 2022 that using e-fuels in cars and commercial vehicles risks “[sucking] up renewable electricity needed for the rest of the economy”. Gimbert added that e-fuels should be diverted to planes and ships, which cannot yet use batteries to decarbonise. 

Nonetheless, momentum continues to build globally. Porsche’s e-fuel partner, Highly Innovative Fuels, began production at the Haru Oni plant in Chile last December and recently gave the go-ahead for a second plant in Texas, US. 

Steve Sapsford, an independent consultant and advisor to sustainable fuel specialist Coryton, told Autocar: “The trick is using the resources for the best overall outcome. On the renewable electricity question, the key argument is that you should be making e-fuels where you have an abundance/excess of renewable energy. 

“This is why the Haru Oni plant is in Chile. There is an excess of solar and wind, more than their domestic consumption, but it is difficult to export that energy as electricity to energy-hungry countries, [such as in] Europe. 

“It then becomes much more attractive to use that energy to make an extremely energy-dense liquid hydrocarbon, which is easy to ship around the world.” 

Several car makers, particularly low-volume ones, have expressed a keen interest in using e-fuels to maintain a combustion offering beyond the end of the decade. Ferrari CEO Benedetto Vigna revealed recently that he thinks “ICE still has a lot to do” and Ineos Automotive CEO Lynn Calder was categoric in predicting “that the combustion engine will continue”.  

In contrast, Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark told Autocar that e-fuels are "not the silver bullet that could replace the need for something else" in the race to decarbonise transport, despite them being "really exciting". The UK government has yet to officially factor e-fuels in to its emissions-reduction strategy.

David Richardson, Coryton’s business development director, believes a total shift is required: “Behind the scenes, there are a lot of very worried people that are saying there’s no way that we can do this [achieve climate targets by switching solely to EVs]. 

“I’d rather everyone was honest and reset ourselves. Get out and ask what is now the right thing to do, instead of the short-termist – the soundbite type stuff.”

How are carbon-neutral fuels made?
E-fuels: E-fuels are a type of synthetic fuel produced using ‘green’ hydrogen (made by electrolysing water with renewable electricity) and carbon, often sourced from waste biomass or CO2 captured from the atmosphere. An e-fuel’s removal of atmospheric carbon – either through photosynthesis when growing the biomass or by capture – is argued to offset the emissions produced when the fuel is burnt in an engine. 

Biofuels: Biofuels, like those produced by British firm Coryton, are made from organic biomass such as agricultural waste. This is turned into bioethanol – the product currently blended into petrol to make E5 and E10 pump fuels – and then further processed into biogasoline that meets the standards for forecourt fuels.

The carbon removed from the atmosphere when growing the biomass is said to offset the carbon produced at the tailpipe; and there is enough waste biomass produced by industry to de-fossilise Europe’s light-duty transport sector, according to a study by Imperial College London.

Incentives could drive carbon-neutral fuel production
The biggest barrier to the mass adoption of carbon-neutral fuels, according to Coryton advisor Steve Sapsford, is the lack of incentives for them. He said: “[Big Oil] is saying that at the moment we’re not going to invest because none of this counts according to our current [carbon accounting] scheme. None of the CO2 savings that we could deploy here actually count in anybody’s system and that’s the fundamental problem.

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