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Synthetic fuels: the way forward or just a dead end?

While much of the world is readying itself for electric power, some brands are intent on extending the life of the car engine

Synthetic fuels: the way forward or just a dead end?

While car manufacturers have been focusing all of their attention on electric cars and hybrids, the development of synthetic fuels has sneaked in under the radar. Promising low- or CO2-neutral running of conventionally-engined cars, could these be a real alternative going forwards, or another idea that looks good in principle but comes up short in practice?

What are synthetic fuels?

The petrol and diesel we put in our vehicles today are fossil fuels whose principal components are carbon and hydrogen that are combined in a complex way following refining from crude oil.

Synthetic fuels aim to replicate this combination of the elements but derive them from other sources. The result is a liquid fuel that has all of the properties of its natural equivalent, which produces only around 15% of the emissions.

In theory, any vehicles that run on petrol or diesel could also work perfectly on the synthetic alternative. Existing petrol stations would also need little or no adaptation at all to be able to dispense them. Unlike the electric car boom that’s creating the need for charging stations to be set up across the country, there is an existing infrastructure already in place to dispense these new types of fuel.

They’re already here!

Brands intent on increasing the life of the combustion engine are already working on synthetic fuels. Porsche, the German manufacturer responsible for making exciting sports cars with exceptional engines, like the 911, has teamed up with the industrial giant Siemens along with a number of other energy companies to build a plant in Southern Chile.

The aim is to be producing 130,000 litres of synthetic fuel a year by 2022, ramping up to 55 million litres by 2024 and 550 million litres annually by 2026. Before we get too carried away by these figures, it’s worth remembering that in the UK 46.5 billion litres of petrol and diesel are used every year.

The aim of the plant will be to use clean energy to create synthetic fuels, supplied as electricity generated by wind turbines, which will then be used to extract hydrogen and oxygen from water and then combine it with CO2 filtered from the air.

In addition to the £18m investment that Porsche is making in the plant, the German government is also contributing £7.2m, a sure sign that synthetic fuels are being seriously considered as a viable alternative to both fossil fuels and electricity as a power source for vehicles.

There’s got to be a catch

If synthetic fuels sound too good to be true, that’s because they may well be. Yes, they will reduce emissions by 85% while also allowing drivers to hang on to their petrol and diesel-fuelled cars. They can even be created using sustainable energy sources.

However, they are very expensive to produce, particularly in the small quantities that the Chilean plant is proposing. While their advocates claim that before very long synthetic fuels will be as cheap - if not cheaper - than their fossil-based equivalents, the reality is that they will initially be around four times as expensive.

There has been an acknowledgement of this fact - and this is why one plan is to gradually mix together synthetic and traditional fuel, starting with a 4% mixture by 2025 rising to 100% by 2050. While this would give time for the amounts being produced to rise up to meet demand, it wouldn’t address the pressing climate change concerns that the world faces and which need more immediate action.

Then there’s the question of the energy needed to produce synthetic fuels. It’s unlikely that the sustainable sources like the wind power being used in Chile will be enough to generate the electricity needed, especially as production grows. It also takes four times the amount of electricity to create synthetic fuels as it does to power batteries for cars.

But let’s not write it off yet

That said, Porsche, along with their partners and the German government, obviously believe that there is a definite point and a future for synthetic fuels.

You might expect a manufacturer whose reputation is built on creating high-performance, fossil-fuelled cars to want to preserve their heritage. Perhaps they can only do this by creating “greener” fuels that will let them continue to build traditionally-powered sports cars.

It’s not only Porsche who will want to keep their motors running. There are classic car owners all over the world who will also want to continue to drive their cherished cars even when the majority of other drivers have gone electric. Synthetic fuels are a way to do this while being a little more environmentally conscious.

There’s also no reason why a new generation of hybrid electric/synthetic-fuelled can’t be created. Even for those journeys that are just too long for a single charge, drivers can carry on under engine power but with greatly reduced emissions.

Last but not least, there are many vehicles like large lorries for which battery power just isn’t practical at the moment. Surely, synthetic fuels would make sense for these.

Let’s not write them off just yet. No, they’re not going to mean that electric cars are left behind, but synthetic fuels will definitely have a role to play in the future.

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