Recently, the European Union announced it will ban new sales of petrol and diesel combustion engine cars from 2035, but with one exemption: those that can run exclusively on synthetic, or e-fuels.
This has raised questions about whether the UK will follow suit. After all, many of the vehicles sold here are European in origin and so generally, automotive trends on the continent are replicated in the UK. In this article we look at why this exemption has come about, how synthetic fuels work, and whether the same rules could happen in Britain.
In 2020, the UK Government announced a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, but the European Union has taken longer to announce its plans. In 2022, it finally revealed it too would end the sale of petrol and diesel cars five years later, in 2035.
But the final details have taken longer to be ratified because Germany, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria blocked final approval until March 2023, when an exemption was introduced that allowed the sale of cars that could use synthetic, or e-fuels, that are made by combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
The two countries most invested in getting this exemption through are Germany and Italy, because a key selling point for high end manufacturers such as Porsche and Ferrari are emotive performance engines. Indeed, Porsche has been producing synthetic fuels in Chile for some time with a view to running its sports cars on them. It was predicted to make up to 130,000 litres of synthetic fuel in 2022, rising to 550 million litres by 2026.
However, synthetic fuels are not necessarily the preserve expensive sports cars, and many vehicles will be able to run on them, filling up from a forecourt just as they do now.
There are many different types of synthetic fuels and some are not new: due to its shortage of oil, Germany produced synthetic fuel during the Second World War, and even the petrol and diesel vehicles used today contain biofuel, which is classed as a synthetic fuel.
The crucial difference with the e-fuel variety of synthetic fuel is that its production is intended to be carbon neutral. Hydrogen is obtained from water by electrolysers using a sustainable electricity source such as wind or solar, and then, using advanced carbon capture methods, carbon dioxide is combined with the hydrogen to make synthetic methanol, which is then processed to become e-fuel.
There are issues though. The burning of e-fuel produces CO2, which means that at best it levels out, rather than reduces CO2, while the cost of it is estimated to currently be €50 per litre. However, experts suggest this could quickly fall to less than €2 per litre, and perhaps even half that, when industrial-scale production starts.
Critics claim that the clean energy needed to produce e-fuels would be better used elsewhere for powering homes and industry, that there will not be enough capacity to fuel more than around 2% of Europe’s cars, and that by 2030, an electric car will emit 53% less CO2 over its lifecycle than a car running on e-fuels anyway.
Clearly, there are some applications where e-fuels could prove useful: in classic cars, sports cars and for running combustion-engine vehicles into the next decade in a cleaner, lower emission way.
Following the EU’s announcement, there was a briefing from Westminster that the Government might consider the same move as long as the synthetic fuel industry can prove it can produce e-fuels in a carbon neutral manner.
In its report ‘Fuelling the Future: motive power and connectivity’, the House of Commons Transport Committee also said “drop-in replacement fuels from renewable sources could be a no-risk, very sensible and economically sound approach”.
However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps then stated the Government had no intention of amending its legislation, saying, “That position remains the same. We’ve always been more forward-leaning on this stuff than the EU.”
So, currently there are no plans for the UK to adopt the e-fuels exemption. This does rely on the battery electric sector to expand at a rate, and reduce costs, that make 2030 a viable cut-off date. If this does not happen at the speed the Government wants, then it may be that e-fuels become a useful staging post in the journey to zero emission motoring.