Despite what the headlines may say, many companies are still attempting to save the combustion engine, and synthetic fuel is one of our greatest hopes. Synthetic fuel, or eFuel for short, isn't a new idea, much like electric technology, with the basic principle tracing back decades.
Up until governments around the world started cracking down on emissions, there wasn't realed to research it further when refined petroleum got the job done just fine. Today the,ough, we're staring over the edge at an electric abyss, meaning the time has come to explore how synthetic fuel can save our classic machines.
The technology is still in its infancy, but the proposed benefits have companies seeing massive dollar signs, given there are currently 1.3 billion gas-powered cars on the road, with 1 billion expected to still exist by 2050. A major automaker and the world's largest oil producer are currently lecharge. Will they find the answer to our combustion-related woes? Or are EVs as inevitable as many say?
Leave it to Porsche to find a way to keep the combustion engine alive. The company is the undisputed leader in synthetic fuel innovation despite plans to go 80% electric by 2030, focusing on a multi-pronged approach to a greener future rather than putting all of its eggs in one basket. Where companies like Toyota have been exploring hydrogen options, Porsche thinks its gasoline equivalent efuel is an even better solution.
After years of work, this led to Porsche opening its first synthetic fuel facility under its subsidiary HIF Global in Punta Arenas, Chile, in 2022, with the Chilean Prime Minister filling up a Porsche 911 and the Porsche R&D Boss even drifting around on the stuff.
As the first facility, production started very small, producing a little over 34,000 gallons a year, but ambitious plans have it ramping up to a staggering 145 million gallons by 2027.
This may seem like a lot, and it's not even a drop in the bucket of what the world consumes in a day, estimated to have reached 103 million barrels by the end of 2023. It's just a start, and more importantly, the facility aims to solve one of the most significant issues with synthetic fuel production: powering the process with renewable energy.
For a quick refresher, synthetic fuel is created by synthesizing carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) to create different fuels like gasoline and diesel. These ingredients can be harnessed in other ways. Still, in Porsche's case, the hydrogen is created through electrolysis, and the carbon dioxide is captured directly from the air surrounding the plant using filters.
Methanol synthesis is then utilized to combine the two ingredients, and then this product is further synthesized to create gasoline.
As one would imagine, this is a highly energy-intensive process, and using energy from coal power plants would defeat the project's purpose. Luckily, Chile is windy, and we mean very windy, allowing wind turbines to work at full load for an average of 270 days a year, producing the power necessary to create the eFuel.
So far, the efuel created has only been utilized in racing and during some stunts to test its continued viability. With success after success, the company is ready to go into full-scale public production. HIF Global has announced the world's largest synthetic fuel facility is set to start construction in Texas in 2024.
It won't be online until 2027, but when it finally is, we could see the fuel industry change in ways we never have before.
The next most prominent player in the synthetic fuel game is a company you've probably only seen on the side of the Aston Martin F1 car and emblazoned across Fernando Alonso's racing suit. Aramco, based in Saudi Arabia, is the world's largest oil producer and one of the largest energy producers in general. Almost entirely state-owned, the company's true worth is unknown, but in 2016, the Saudi Crown Prince announced that 5% of an Aramco IPO would be worth about $2 trillion. So it's safe to say the company has more money than most countries.
Still, the business is almost entirely based on oil production, and it's no secret this is threatened significantly by the worldwide switch to electric vehicles. Finding another horse to back seems a shrewd move. Along these lines, the company has announced partnerships with many automakers that will allow it to expand its synthetic fuel production substantially and further improve the process.
Hyundai was the first to announce a partnership in 2022, saying it would test out the fuel in its cars over the next couple of years. Aston Martin said it was also pursuing the technology with its F1 partner around the same time, with the brand's previous CEO, Tobias Moers, saying that some models simply can not go electric. Unfortunately, not much has been heard from either brand since then, but sometimes, no news is good news.
With Aramco still hard at work, late last year, Stellantis announced that 24 European engine families are now compatible with the company's fuel. Testing was done over months, with Stellantis saying this could help keep its 28 million European cars on the road into the future, though there are no plans to supplant its current electrification goals.
Outside the testing sphere, Aramco also partnered with Geely and the Renault Group to create a company called PWT that will invest in synthetic fuel technology and produce hybrid and plain combustion engines and transmissions.
Aramco even recently announced a deal with ENOWA to create a synthetic fuel demonstration facility in the country's futuristic NEOM Super-city, which is currently under construction. ENOWA is the city's energy and water authority, so perhaps this fuel will be used for the city to function rather than for public use.
The company seems determined to find a way to make the technology work. Hopefully, it finds the right avenue to do so because greater competition is usually better for the consumer.
Apart from these two giants, companies like Mazda and Bosch are also working on their own synthetic fuel projects, with Mazda already having driven hundreds of miles on public roads. The company is also exploring creating efuel out of seaweed, but that's still in the preliminary stages.
Most projects still are. Unfortunately, one of the defining characteristics of many of these previously mentioned projects is their uncertain future. Porsche seems the only company with truly concrete plans, as all of the others are still stuck in the testing phases or have gone radio silent on the projects recently.
It still appears there's a lack of dedication from automakers. For some, like Lotus, this is due to a lack of funds available to pursue these possibilities, as this is still cutting-edge stuff that isn't going to bear fruit until significantly more investment is employed. Small automakers can't afford to risk it, and the lack of government support isn't helping the situation.
Last year, the EU announced a 2035 ban on combustion vehicle sales, but with a synthetic fuel exemption that helped pass the ban. It was a massive win for the tech, but just a few months later, Germany failed to garner the support for synthetic fuels it was hoping for, with a mere three countries coming together to sign their declaration. We imagine if countries wanted to show their support, they would, meaning the faith may not be all there.
We at Carbuzz believe there's a place for synthetic fuel, as a multi-pronged approach to curbing our emissions has always appeared to be the best solution to our problems. As automakers rushed to create all-electric lineups these past few years, combustion seemed dead.
Still, these companies can only dictate what the market wants to a point, and it seems consumers are getting tired of the half-baked electric offerings.
It appears the EV market has been cooling, as Ford and VW have announced they're cutting back EV production due to slow sales, and GM has announced it will introduce PHEV offerings in the future as it realized EV sales haven't been the cash king it was expecting. GM was still in front of Toyota/Lexus regarding 2023 US sales last year, but no single brand sold as much as Toyota.
Additionally, Toyota and Lexus had many best-selling vehicles last year, with hybrids leading the charge. Toyota has been very open about its multi-faceted approach to a more sustainable future, saying it doesn't believe one technology is the key as it also explores hybridization and hydrogen solutions.
Toyota was steadfast in its convictions even as it changed CEOs, and it's looking like that was the correct call.
Beyond the bottom line, synthetic fuel will allow our beloved cars to survive in the foreseeable future. People aren't going to stop driving their Mustangs, Silverados, and Chargers despite gas getting more expensive as the industry shifts.
Old combustion vehicles will be the primary solution for many parts of the world that still won't have highly functioning electrical grids capable of handling EVs. You can't expect them to roll over for the sake of the environment with no viable alternatives.
Synthetic fuel can be that alternative, whether running a vintage 911 or a modern-day Corolla. It can be a smaller piece of a greater goal of cutting our emissions, and if it means we get to enjoy the sweet sounds of combustion far into the future we enthusiasts hope it's given a proper chance.