As the world turns its attention towards replacing fossil fuels with electricity, or possibly even hydrogen, another form of propellant has provided enthusiasts and fanatics of the internal combustion engine with renewed hope. What if there was a way to contribute to the world’s net-zero carbon goals, while keeping the beating heart of a traditional automobile alive? Synthetic fuels may just be the answer.
Otherwise referred to as ‘efuels’ or ‘synfuels’, synthetic fuels do not provide zero tailpipe emissions but they do represent a substantially greener substitute to petrol and diesel. In this Karfu explainer guide, we cover everything you need to know about synthetic fuels and how viably they could be used as a future means of propulsion.
What are synthetic fuels?
The simplest way to describe synthetic fuels is that they are fossil fuels that have been produced artificially. While fossil fuels are natural compounds that have been formed beneath the earth’s crust over time (hence the name), the process of creating synthetic fuels aims to replicate the procedure by using alternative, renewable sources.
Traditional fuels like petrol and diesel are formed using oil, but the basic molecular structure consists of hydrogen and carbon (hydrocarbons). Hydrocarbon production can also be done using water and carbon from air, without the use of oil and heavily pollutable manufacturing techniques. So, while efuels are by no means a zero emission solution, they do represent a considerably cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
Creating hydrocarbons using water or air does require a lot of energy, but the advantage here is that the power used in production can be generated using wind or solar power - otherwise known as renewable sources of energy - which actually helps to counterbalance the emissions given off by engines while burning synthetic fuels.
The animals and plants that decompose into fossil fuels underground take millions of years to do so. Synthetic fuels look to complete the conversion process in a considerably shorter time frame, enabling us to control production ourselves without depending on the earth’s natural resources.
And while we don’t yet have a definitive year as to when we will exhaust the earth’s natural resources, some scientists predict it could be as early as 2060. This is the reason we’ve started to look for alternative sources of energy, and why synthetic fuels could play a major role in transport propulsion in the future.
Who makes synthetic fuels, and how are they made?
There are a multitude of companies that have started to explore the boundaries of synthetic fuels, and of the global car manufacturers, Porsche has been a major contributor to efuel research and development. In September 2021, the Haru Oni synthetic fuel plant in Punta Arenas, Chile was created.
It’s being operated by a Chilean start-up company called HIF Global, and was funded by a consortium consisting of Porsche, Siemens Energy and ExxonMobil. The plant - which is the largest of its kind in Latin America - gathers Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the outside air and turns it into hydrogen and oxygen by using a process called ‘electrolysis’, which is done via wind power.
The hydrocarbons are then used to synthesise methanol, after which a methanol-to-gasoline conversion process devised by ExxonMobil is utilised to create a longer hydrocarbon. The result is a ‘single fundible liquid fuel’ which can then be refined and used to power an internal combustion engine.
The plant is expected to be completed this year, and aims to produce an annual production rate of 130,000 litres (34,000 gallons) of synthetic fuel by the end of the year. Once this ‘pilot phase’ is over, the Haru Oni plant will target 55 million litres (14.5 million gallons) of efuel production in 2024, and then 550 million litres (145 million gallons) by 2026.
By comparison, the UK had a combined usage of over 40 billion litres of petrol and diesel in 2021 - trumping the synfuel production output for the foreseeable future.
Other key companies involved in the development of synthetic fuels are the likes of Bosch, Sasol, Royal Dutch Shell, Phillips 66, Reliance Industries, PetroChina and Indian Oil Corporation.
How much do synthetic fuels cost?
Currently, synthetic fuels still cost a significant amount more than electricity, petrol or diesel, and the prices can vary quite a bit. The Royal Society scientific institute says efuels currently cost £4 per litre in the UK - and that’s before tax. Considering the price of petrol is fluctuating at around £1.73 per litre having now stabilised after the UK fuel price crisis of 2022, synthetic fuels are comparatively expensive.
With increased infrastructure and production, this is expected to come down. Synthetic fuel advocates ‘eFuel Alliance’ say the gradual infusion of synfuels into petrol mixtures of 4% by 2025, 12% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 will contribute to this. The brand says costs of between £1.15 and £1.87 per litre can be expected in the future.
However, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) - which is a US-based non-profit organisation - says between £2.50 and £3.35 per litre is a more reasonable assumption by 2030. The bottom line is that a concrete answer cannot be provided right now, but it’s a real possibility that efuels may never cost less than traditional petrol or diesel.
What vehicle types can use synthetic fuels?
Synthetic fuels are essentially seen as a like-for-like replacement for traditional fuels, so cars with an internal combustion engine can use them. That includes a vintage 1960s Jaguar E-Type, to a modern Polestar 1 Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV) and everything in between. This wide range of usability is why the prospect of synthetic fuels has found favour with those who want the internal combustion engine to live on.
Since Bertha Benz’ infamous ride in the Benz Patent Motorwagen in 1888 - which is considered to be the first ever long-distance journey completed in a car with a combustion engine - humanity has experienced a period of progression like never before. And this long-standing love affair with one of the world’s greatest innovations is why so many people feel strongly about retaining it, if possible.
Synthetic fuels can also be used to power a variety of public transport solutions like buses, with the aviation industry also taking a particular interest in them. As a side note, Formula 1 has also developed a renewable synthetic fuel that will be introduced in 2026, with the sport aiming to be net-zero carbon by 2030.
What are the advantages of synthetic fuels?
More sustainability - They’re produced using renewable materials and powered by natural means (such as wind turbines), so synthetic fuels are more sustainable than traditional fuels
Emissions neutralisation - The sourcing and development techniques associated with synthetic fuels cause considerably less harm to the environment than conventional fuels, so they’d go some way towards compensating for the damage already caused to the planet.
Existing product longevity - Since the vehicles that can utilise synthetic fuels already exist and the refuelling infrastructure will be largely the same, there’s real no need to create new products to use it.
Stepstone for innovation - Not only will the rise of synthetic fuels put the refinement industry as a leader in the field of low-emission strategies and technologies, but the infrastructure used will also be an important factor in producing renewable hydrogen - another potential propellent for the future.
What are the disadvantages of synthetic fuels?
Not as efficient as EVs - Estimates from Forbes claim synfuels to be four times less efficient than electric power. Essentially, this means the UK would need to quadruple the amount of electricity being produced to enable the entire nation to run on synthetic fuels. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for synfuels to become commonplace.
High cost - Even if synthetic fuels become a commonplace, we can expect it to cost more than the prices we’ve grown used to with petrol and diesel. Since current prices sit at around £4 per litre before tax, electricity could be the most viable option to many for the foreseeable future.
Lack of supply - The UK uses an average of 45-50 billion litres of petrol and diesel every year, which would pose a huge supply and demand predicament if many turned to efuels. Of course, the emergence of suppliers like the Haru Oni plant in Chile will contribute to global availability, but the technology and infrastructure to provide the entire planet with synthetic fuels will still take years.
Battery power progression - Considering how far electric cars have come over the last 10 years and the speed at which they continue to develop, electricity may prove to be cheaper, greener and more accessible than efuels in the future.
Can synthetic fuels really help to retain internal combustion engine-powered cars?
Synthetic fuels are an interesting proposition. The idea that pre-existing cars can continue to be used, but with the added benefits of being much greener than they currently are, sounds like a practical compromise between the past and the future.
But there are various hurdles that need to be overcome, particularly with pricing and suppliability, in addition to the argument that they are almost certainly not as environmentally friendly as going electric. Perhaps synthetic fuels will largely be used by fanatics and supporters of the internal combustion engine, which would go some way towards nullifying the supply issues that would be faced since only a portion of the population would be using it.
What are your thoughts on synthetic fuels, and would you be keen to use them to power your car? Carry on the conversation down below!