Are e-fuels the miracle that will save the combustion engine?

Road Cars

New cars that run on carbon-neutral e-fuels can still be sold after the EU's ban on internal combustion engined-vehicles, legislators have announced. But don't think this will reverse the switch to electric power, writes Andrew Frankel

2022 Porsche 911 rear


You may have read in the national press over the last few days that reports of the impending death of the internal combustion engine (ICE) has been a trifle exaggerated. If not, and in short, the Germans – with the backing of ltaly, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have done a deal with the EU allowing cars powered by carbon-neutral fuels to be produced and sold after the 2035 date that would otherwise have seen their demise.

What this means is that ICE cars can stay in production so long as they run on e-fuels, which is to say fuel produced synthetically from carbon captured from the atmosphere and made using renewable energy. This will be music to the ears of the likes of Porsche which has already invested heavily in a joint venture in Chile using wind power to manufacture just such fuels. There is also an exemption from car manufacturers making fewer than 1000 cars per year, so the likes of Caterham and Ariel can go on producing ICE cars for as far into the future as can currently be seen.

While no one has come up with a firm price, e-fuels are currently very expensive indeed.

It seems that there has been an outbreak of common sense in the EU and if that’s only been achieved with some strong arm tactics from the Germans and its allies, in this case the ends appear wholly to justify the means.

But issues remain. First burning fuel in an internal combustion engine is less efficient than a battery powering an electric motor, no matter how saintly that fuel happens to be. Second, you still get tailpipe emissions from e-fuels, third even if you can create completely carbon-neutral fuel in Chile, you’ve still got to get it from there to where it’s needed around the world, and that process is not likely to be carbon neutral at all. Finally, and while no one has come up with a firm price for it, e-fuels are currently very expensive indeed.

Synthetic fuel factory in Chile

Wind-powered plant in Chile has begun producing synthetic fuel


Of course what some are hoping is that by the time the exemption comes into force in 2035, the technology will be have been upscaled sufficiently for e-fuels to become both affordable and widely available, so that you’ll be able to switch from bad old fossil fuels to good old e-fuels and, like the engine in your car, scarcely notice the difference at all.

We shall see. What others regard as a triumphant, decisive victory for the traditional voices within the auto industry, not to mention the aforementioned common sense, I see as an opening skirmish with no clear winner and the route forward left unclear. More of an Edgehill than a Naseby you might say.

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Because even Porsche says it has no plans at present to sell the e-fuels it is developing with Siemens and ExxonMobil to the public, but will keep it for motor sport and driver experience activities. Further, even when running at full chat, the Chilean factory would only be able to satisfy a tiny fraction of the potential demand, and while there are other e-fuel projects already up and running, we are, at present, a million miles from it becoming a viable alternative to a battery electric vehicle.

Moreover, while the resistance to the move from environmental groups seems to be restricted to low level mutterings at present, if it turns out that e-fuels might really be produced in the quantities desired and sold at prices that are required, they’re going to get a whole lot noisier. And the point they will make is that internal combustion engines are yesterday’s technology, and that burning any kind of fuel inside them is a step back not simply from where we need to be years from now, but the battery-electric technology that’s with us today. So while I am hopeful that e-fuel might grant ICE engines a stay of execution, I am far from certain that it will and, even if it does, less sure still how long it will last.

Barrel of synthetic fuel produced in Chile

Chile fuel production won’t be sold to the public


In the meantime, there is a pachyderm trumpeting away in the corner. Because, thanks to some former glorious leaders, the UK is no longer in the EU, so none of this is actually relevant to the vast majority of people reading this. What is the UK’s position on e-fuels? I’ve requested an interview with Transport Secretary Mark Harper MP, and if one is granted and I actually get to sit down with him, I’ll let you know what he says. For now however the position is that all pure petrol and diesel car sales are to be banned from 2030, and all hybrids from 2035.

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Are we now, or are we likely to be ready to hit the 2030 deadline? I don’t think there’s one chance in ten thousand and nor does anyone else I know whose opinion I’d trust on the subject. Setting up a sufficiently large and robust network of public charging points the length and breadth of the country’s road system is just the start of it. Doing the same in residential streets with terraced housing, many divided into flats and with no off-street parking is a challenge of an altogether greater magnitude. And how is the Government going to replace the tens of billions of tax revenue lost on petrol and diesel sales? Right now we have no idea because most people charge at home and how do you separate out the electricity that goes into your car from that which powers your kettle? Road pricing seems the likeliest option, but the truth is we simply don’t know.

Sooner or later some brave government minister is going to have to stand up and admit what I think most of us already tacitly believe: unless they fudge their definition of ‘hybrid’ so that it might extend down to include sales of all the small, relatively affordable cars which are otherwise to be effectively banned in little more than six years time – ‘your car’s got stop/start? That’ll do, it’s a hybrid’ – they’re going to have to fall in line with the EU. And you can imagine just how popular that will make it among the more swivel-eyed members of the current party in power. But there are no quick fixes here, no easy options, and anyone who thinks e-fuels are somehow going to sweep in, sort it all out and make it seem like no more than a bad dream are, I am afraid, likely to be sorely disappointed.