Without classic gasoline, the delightful melody of the Porsche 911 GTS would emit nothing. While in France, almost all carmakers have decided to go 100% electric, the debate on the future of the internal combustion engine has been simmering for several months in Germany, but has not yet made it to the top of the political agenda. It has taken a decisive turn since the arrival of Porsche boss Oliver Blume at the head of Volkswagen on 1 September 2022. Whereas Herbert Diess, his predecessor at the head of Europe’s largest carmaker, was banking on the battery-powered car, Blume refuses to believe that the mythical Porsche roar is over.
Indeed, Porsche and international partners working with the Chilean operating company Highly Innovative Fuels (HIF) have started the industrial production of synthetic fuels.
What exactly are e-fuels?
Totally synthetic, this fuel does not use oil. To create it, the German brand uses only two natural materials: water and air! By passing electricity through water, Porsche carries out an electrolysis that allows it to obtain hydrogen (H2). The other essential compound is carbon dioxide, aka CO2, the greenhouse gas that is believed to be the main cause of global warming. The sports car manufacturer manages to capture it thanks to large fans that send the ambient air through specific filters. A reaction between H2 and CO2 then produces eMethanol (CH3OH), an alcohol that is finally transformed into unleaded gasoline usable in any car thanks to a process called methanol-to-gasoline (MTG).
Can all internal combustion cars be equipped with it?
Yes, and without the addition of a box, as is the case for ethanol, for example. Better still, the chemical specificity of e-fuels can even be superior to that of today’s diesel and unleaded. Since these fuels are synthetic, you can put “whatever you want” in them, i.e. elements that burn perfectly in an engine and have good energy efficiency.
But let’s be precise, the eFuel does not reduce polluting exhaust emissions, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) or particles. Porsche is not presenting this solution as a substitute for 100 percent electric vehicles, which could account for 90 percent of the brand’s sales by 2030. On the other hand, thanks to the upstream capture of carbon dioxide, synthetic fuel could make current thermal models climate neutral, without the need to scrap them or make costly modifications. There is still one major hurdle: the complex manufacturing process requires a lot of energy. For example, about 20 kWh would be needed for each liter of eFuel. If coal-fired power plants are used for this production, the environment is obviously affected. This is also a problem for manufacturers like Toyota and Hyundai who are relying on hydrogen.
A pilot factory in Chile
That’s why Porsche chose to locate its eFuel pilot plant in Chile, a particularly windy part of the world. Wind turbines there provide 3.5 times more electricity than if they were located in Germany.
This would make it the cheapest place to buy renewable energy: €15/MWh compared to €28/MWh in South Africa and €40/MWh in Norway. At the same time, this energy could avoid being lost, since the small population located nearby does not allow to use it directly. The transportation of the fuel to Europe, however, puts a strain on the virtuous nature of this equation. But Porsche hopes that in time its eFuel will also be able to power the boats that take it around the world. This is another advantage over electric motorization, which today seems unthinkable for sea and air transport. The factory in Chile, in partnership with Siemens Energy and ExxonMobil, will not start production until mid-2022.
The target is only 130,000 liters for this year. Initially, this eFuel will only be used to power the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup in the Supercup, the most prestigious of the many one-make championships organized by the brand. As is often the case, the Stuttgart-based manufacturer will use the competition as a laboratory. The choice of the 911 is not a trivial one, since one of the objectives is to keep this icon alive as long as possible with a combustion engine. The rate of production should then increase fairly quickly to reach 55 million liters per year in 2024 and 550 million liters per year in 2026. But that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to global gasoline production: in France alone, 42.55 billion liters of road fuel were sold in 2020, a year troubled by the confinements.
How much will eFuel cost?
With such an embryonic production, Porsche was not really able to give us the price of a liter of eFuel at the moment. The brand prefers to look further ahead, with a goal of going under 2 dollars per liter, excluding taxes, by 2030. Under these conditions, it is impossible to compete on equal terms with conventional gasoline. In October 2021, despite the current surge in oil prices, it will still cost less than a dollar a liter in the United States.To reduce the gap, the brand is banking on increasingly high carbon taxes, which could make its solution more competitive.
Whatever the fuel used, driving a thermal car would be much more expensive than today… But thanks to eFuel, in an ideal world, it would still be possible to drive a 911. What to give all the same a glimmer of hope…