What are synthetic fuels?

Synthetic fuels could be the eco-friendly answer to saving combustion engines… but what are they?

Porsche fuel cap
Porsche fuel cap

The internal combustion engine is dead. Or at least, that’s what we’re constantly being told, with governments planning bans on petrol and diesel vehicles and manufacturers investing heavily in electric vehicles.

However, while EVs are undoubtedly going to be a big part of reducing emissions in the automotive industry, another option has quietly been gaining steam and could breathe new life into combustion-engined vehicles – synthetic fuels.

They almost seem too good to be true, so what are they, and how likely are they to go mainstream? Let’s take a look…

Porsche/Siemens Haru Oni Plant
A render of the Haru Oni synthetic fuel plant in Chile. (Porsche)

What is a synthetic fuel?

When it comes to their basic makeup, synthetic fuels – or eFuels as they are sometimes known – are essentially no different to the diesel or petrol that comes from crude oil. However, the key difference is that they’re produced from CO2 and hydrogen using renewable energy.

What are the key advantages?

Electric vehicle uptake is slow, and there are concerns in some corners about whether enough EVs can be built in time for widespread uptake, or whether the charging infrastructure will be in place.

The UK is banning the sale of pure petrol- or diesel-powered cars from 2030, including hybrids from 2035, putting time pressure on the situation.

Synthetic fuels can be used in existing combustion engines without any adaptations needed, meaning cars already on the road can use the sustainably sourced fuels, while also reducing the need to bring in bans so soon.

This will help to extend the life of combustion-engined cars, reduce emissions and create a more sustainable transition to zero-emission motoring.

Are there downsides?

Yes, though they don’t seem totally insurmountable. Porsche is the manufacturer that’s most getting behind synthetic fuels, but even it admits that it’s currently far more efficient to simply use renewable energy to charge an electric vehicle than to use it to create synthetic fuels.

Porsche Mobil1 Supercup 2021
Porsche is testing synthetic fuels in the Mobil 1 Supercup racing series. (Porsche)

However, the German car maker is investing in development of synthetic fuels with various other major global companies such as Siemens, which should see the process become more efficient and the end product a higher quality.

Will synthetic fuels catch on?

At this point it’s impossible to know, because everyone from governments to car manufacturers have thrown their weight so heavily behind electric vehicles. However, even as EV uptake grows, there will still be millions of petrol and diesel cars on the road that need fuel, and this could be a fantastic solution.

If Porsche starts to see good results quickly, expect to see more and more companies investing in the technology in the coming years, increasing its likelihood of making it to the pumps.

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