Are synthetic fuels the answer to reducing global carbon dioxide emissions?


As global greenhouse gases continue to rise, countries are looking to develop technologies that can help combat the growing threat of climate change. Elliot Robinson considers the benefits of synthetic fuels, how they are being developed, and the potential limitations of such innovations.

With global CO2 emissions continuing to rise at an alarming rate, the need to reduce our carbon footprint has never been greater. Electricity generation, transportation, and manufacturing are the primary sources of pollution, with transportation accounting for 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. While many countries have announced ambitious targets to cut their CO2 emissions, meeting these challenges will require the development and use of new and innovative technologies.

In terms of innovation, one technology that is being increasingly touted as the key to meeting decarbonisation goals is synthetic fuel. Essentially an eco-friendly replica of petrol or diesel, synthetic fuel can easily be adopted in transportation, with internal combustion engines able to run on it without requiring a complete overhaul. Not only does synthetic fuel promise to massively decrease CO2 emissions in transportation, it is also forecast to cost less money than fossil fuel over the long-term, as supply increases worldwide.

Synthetic fuel is produced in a variety of ways. The most common method is by synthesising captured carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide with hydrogen. By capturing the CO2 during the manufacturing process, the greenhouse gas can be utilised as a raw material from which diesel or gasoline is produced with electricity from renewable energy sources.

Once this process becomes large-scale and affordable, the potential boost to the economy is enormous. While electric vehicles are certainly a viable solution to combat harmful emissions, the technology at the moment is not practical enough when it comes to larger-scale vehicles. Shipping, aviation and other long-distance transportation will benefit hugely from synthetic fuels, lowering or eliminating the harmful emissions of these industries and ultimately positively affecting the economy.

Issues affecting the potential for widespread adoption

Although synthetic fuels have clear benefits, especially for the environment, there are obstacles when it comes to the idea of widespread adoption. A considerable factor are the costs accrued during the synthesis process, as well as via carbon capture. The cost can vary depending on the carbon dioxide concentration and the purity of the source – for example, if a pure stream of carbon dioxide is available from an industrial process, the capture costs will be lower. However, capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air will be much more expensive because there is a much lower concentration of CO2. While there is potential to reduce costs through development and innovation in the future, current costs are too expensive for the general public.

Beyond the economics of synthetic fuels, detractors also argue that the technology is not as beneficial to the environment as it appears. As the process to create these fuels requires a large amount of energy, and electricity supply from renewable energy is not yet at a scale to support large industrial processes by itself, the idea that synthetic fuel may help towards net-zero seems redundant. Combining CO2 with hydrogen, as well as other stages in the process, is very energy intensive, and not very efficient when compared to battery-powered vehicles. Recent research conducted by Transport & Environment UK found that if just ten per cent of the UK’s cars, vans and small trucks used e-fuels, they would require three times as much renewable electricity as batteries.

The transition to synthetic fuels is not expected to happen overnight. However, this does not mean that synthetic fuels will not be able to make a difference in people’s lives. Synthetic fuels are certainly a viable solution for the short term, and it can be especially advantageous to achieving carbon neutrality within industries such as long haul transportation, where using electric vehicles is not practical.

Further development is needed, however, to maximise its impact on CO2 emissions. For wider adoption, the public perception will need to change, with a larger focus on the benefits that synthetic fuels can offer consumers in terms of cost and reducing pollution.

Companies such as Porsche have raised eyebrows over recent months, due to their advances in synthetic fuel technology, and have recently worked alongside Siemens Energy to create a pilot plant in Chile. They claim that the new plant will allow them to produce fuel that can be used with existing internal combustion engines, while being almost completely carbon neutral. Additionally, the electricity used at the plant will come from wind power, lowering the overall carbon footprint of the facility. In this way, Porsche claims that their synthetic fuel will have a lower carbon footprint than electric vehicles.

The first stage of the plant’s production cycle is slated to begin in 2022. While these developments are certainly promising, the truth is that the best way for widespread adoption to happen may be to witness synthetic fuels prospering in other industries.

Case study: The future of motorsport fuel

While there is still a long time to go before widespread adoption of synthetic fuels in the general public is possible, they are already being implemented in certain sectors. One industry that has promised to embrace synthetic fuels is motorsport. Small, independent racing series have shown interest in embracing this technology, but Formula One has become a pioneer in this field, and has already made a commitment to embrace it going forward. F1 bosses previously announced that they want vehicles to run entirely on synthetic fuels, with their current vehicles running on a 5.75 per cent blend of biofuel.

By 2030, F1 bosses want vehicles to run on third-generation biofuels as there are no plans to become a fully electric motorsport. Although going electric may seem like an obvious choice, considering so many vehicles are becoming electric hybrids, it is not something that F1 bosses have been considered due to a perceived adverse effect on the entertainment of the sport. Currently, the technology does not create enough energy to power stronger vehicles such as F1 cars.

While Formula E showcases the potential of electric vehicles, synthetic fuels will be used to power the internal combustion engines of F1 vehicles. Their engines are already among the most efficient units on the planet, with 50 per cent thermal efficiency. This means that 50 per cent of the energy is used to propel the car, rather than being wasted as heat or noise. The fuel may also be beneficial for the sport in other ways, as there is a possibility for a performance gain. Current F1 vehicles are limited by the amount of fuel that they use, something that would not be an issue if they switched to cleaner alternatives such as synthetic fuels.

The use of synthetic fuels in motorsport is not without question. Some detractors feel that even though the fuel is negative-emission, there are doubts as to whether it will solve the issues of air pollution that come from burning fossil fuels. Despite these issues, few can deny that synthetic fuels are a great short-term solution for the sport.

With F1’s commitment to developing this technology, there is no doubt that they can lead the charge toward synthetic fuels and help influence public perception on the matter.

“Formula 1 did not invent the hybrid, but we helped show what a hybrid could be and moved peoples opinion of what a hybrid is capable of,” says Pat Symonds, chief technical officer at Formula 1. “I believe we can do the same with biofuel technology, hopefully demonstrating that another viable alternative energy source is possible.”

Achieving these ambitious goals will no doubt be difficult. However, if F1 wants to be seen as a pioneer of the industry for sustainability, they must be able to deliver on these promises. With synthetic fuels looking to play a key part in F1 in 2025 and beyond, it is clear that their influence with the general public is only going to get stronger over the coming years.

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