E-fuels gain momentum

A key concession granted recently to the car industry, to retain internal combustion engines that run on CO2-neutral fuels past 3035, might just propel these fuels of the future into the fast lane. E-fuels are particularly attractive, as they are made from potentially plentiful raw materials - carbon dioxide, water and renewable electricity.

As someone who has both ‘range anxiety’ and an aversion to queueing up for charging points, I was relieved to hear the news. But there is more to this than clinging onto old technology.  Liquid fuels will be needed for aviation and shipping for a long time, and e-fuels also offer these sectors the chance to achieve net zero. Plus, the chemicals industry will gain from this new technology. And the more sectors that could benefit, the more likely that investors will have the confidence to commit their funds.

E-fuels are expensive to produce. They use carbon dioxide extracted from the atmosphere or from an industrial waste stream. So, investment in carbon capture is needed together with renewable electricity generation and innovative processing technology. Companies will have to be convinced that there is a market before investing. Perhaps getting car drivers on board will just tip the balance.

The easiest e-fuel to synthesise is methanol. It is produced today at Carbon Recycling International’s plant in Iceland. So, the basic elements of the technology are already there, and industry is working on improvements. Methanol is gaining ground as a shipping fuel, but its use in cars is resisted by the industry in Europe. That may have to change. A few years ago, I wrote about how China has approved blends of 5% up to 100% pure methanol for road transport. The Chinese are filling their cars with the very methanol blends that the western car industry says are unsuitable for distribution and use. E-fuels that are more similar to fossil diesel can also be produced from carbon dioxide but that introduces inefficiency and increases costs.

The EU compromise has yet to be fleshed out and the detail will be important. The current implication is that a separate class of vehicles running exclusively on e-fuels will be created. The difficult part for the European Commission is to stop owners of these vehicles from filling them up with fossil fuels. Conventional petrol and diesel will be widely on sale in 2035 to cater for those still driving older vehicles. They will almost certainly be cheaper. And I am guessing that a different size nozzle for pumps dispensing e-fuels from those providing fossil fuels isn’t going to be sufficiently robust a measure. 

Coming back to methanol, one way forward is for e-methanol to be the only e-fuel allowed, with a ban on fossil methanol sales on the forecourt. Car makers would then have to adapt their engines and fuel handling system to cope with the methanol whilst making them unable to run on conventional diesel or petrol. This probably isn’t what the car companies have in mind. Also, another disadvantage of methanol is that it has a lower volumetric energy density than conventional road transport fuels, so a litre of fuel takes you less far.  

It may be possible for e-fuels to contain some sort of marker compound to distinguish them from fossil fuel, but coupling that with the engine ignition mechanism, so that this new class of cars can only run on e-fuels, does not sound easy. 

There are dissenting voices, because it is more efficient to use renewable electricity to power battery-electric vehicles directly than it is to use that electricity to produce a liquid fuel. But this analysis does not take into account practicalities. For drivers who cover long distances in rural areas, there may not be the necessary charging points for a very long time. There are also objections that biofuels, which can also be CO2 neutral, were not included. Importantly, the automotive sector provides jobs for 13 million Europeans. And with China dominating the supply of raw materials for batteries, there are fears for Europe’s ability to compete in the EV market. So ultimately the future of e-fuels and the internal combustion engine may be a political decision. 

Published: 2 May 23

Back to news list