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Opinion

The big questions over a future with synthetic fuels

Momentum is building behind eFuels, but does it offer a viable future for the motorsport and automotive industries?

Shell 100% Renewable Race Fuel

The topic of eFuels has been pushed more into the spotlight by Formula 1’s drive to utilise a 100% sustainable drop-in fuel for its next generation of engines in 2026. This follows the World Rally Championship in 2022 introducing a blend of synthetic and biofuel, which it claims is 100% renewable, and for this season IndyCar introduced its own blend that uses second-generation ethanol derived from Brazilian sugarcane.

Huge investment is going into eFuels to keep internal combustion engines alive for longer, with the sale of new ICE cars due to be banned by the EU from 2035 unless they are running on synthetic fuels, and to reduce the carbon output of existing cars. Efforts to limit fossil fuel use is welcome, but are eFuels really the best way of doing this in motorsport?

First, let’s consider how eFuels are made. It’s a very energy-intensive process, which involves capturing carbon dioxide from the air and binding it together with hydrogen extracted from water. It’s not magic; you need to put in the energy first to be able to extract it afterwards in a combustion cycle. A fuel that has a lot of energy in it needs a lot to produce in the first place.

Then you need to transport this fuel from its source to a filling station, pump it into a car, and finally burn it. Even if you make the argument that 2026 F1 engines burning eFuels are carbon neutral, because they only release the carbon that is used to make the fuel, there’s still the question of making the entire chain renewable and cost-effective.

Generating carbon to produce eFuel is clearly counterproductive. So to be fully carbon neutral, the electricity needs to come from renewable sources. That means using wind and solar power, as the average grid of US or Europe is very carbon-dependent. But these energy sources are very expensive and there isn’t an abundant supply. As a result, for the general public, eFuels are not a commercially viable option.

It’s simply not the case that because F1 will run eFuel, the market will follow because the energy to produce it is so expensive. Unless it’s for a niche classic car that you want to drive at the weekends and hear the engine while still being carbon neutral, it doesn’t make sense.

Carbon capture is still in its early stages, so technology will evolve and it will get cheaper. But again, this is some way off. Bosch in 2020 predicted that renewable synthetic fuels would not be €1.20 per litre until 2030 at the earliest. The International Council on Clean Transportation views this as an optimistic estimate.

Sebastian Vettel drove the 1992 Williams using sustainable fuels at Silverstone last year

Sebastian Vettel drove the 1992 Williams using sustainable fuels at Silverstone last year

Photo by: Dom Romney / Motorsport Images

There’s not enough energy in the world to produce eFuels at a quantity that can replace oil entirely. The campaign group Transport & Environment projects that only five million out of the 287 million cars on the road can fully run on eFuels by 2035, which equates to 2% of the cars used in the EU.

Even if there was an excessive surplus of the very cheap renewable energy needed for eFuels to be viable, it would be badly purposed for the creation of synthetic fuels due to its inefficiency. The energy loss from producing, transporting and burning eFuels is far greater than with battery electric vehicles; T&E states that eFuels yield on average only 16% efficiency, compared to 77% for BEVs.

Generating carbon to produce eFuel is clearly counterproductive. So to be fully carbon neutral, the electricity needs to come from renewable sources

It’s a different story with planes, as the electrification of the aviation industry is some way off. But in road cars and on the track, where an EV option exists, it’s just not possible to generate the same amount of motion from the same amount of energy with eFuels as you can using electric motors. You can make the process better, but there is a limitation on the laws of physics. To me, it makes more sense to skip all these processes and use this electricity to charge up a battery.

Can eFuels save motorsport? If its main purpose is for marketing and image, we could argue that it has some logic. It’s a good way of keeping F1 sponsors happy. But saying average customers will use this in their road cars – and that it’s a reason for F1 to pursue it – to me makes no sense at all.

eFuels may not be the most efficient thing for motorsport

eFuels may not be the most efficient thing for motorsport

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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