Sustainability in the midst of climate change has been a unified goal for the automotive industry for decades. According to a report from the European Environment Agency, transport was responsible for about a quarter of the EU’s total CO2 emissions in 2019 with 71.7% came from road transportation. It is clear that there needs to be real change in the industry to combat the ever growing danger of global warming.
Electric vehicles (EVs) have been a well established solution to carbon emissions, providing a CO2 free alternative to internal combustion engines (ICEs). EVs have been rapidly adopted by business and industry, as well as consumers; with global sales exceeding 10 million in 2022.
However, even with this widespread growth of EVs, there are still millions of ICE vehicles on roads. What is the future for these? Is there a way to make them sustainable, or are they destined for the scrapyard? What of our luxury and classic cars? What about mission-critical commercial vehicles like ambulances? Many of the questions remain without a concrete answer.
In this guide, we dive into e-fuels and sustainable fuels, how each of them are created and how they impact the movement towards a sustainable transportation model.
What is the difference between e-fuels and sustainable fuels?
Both sustainable fuels and e-fuels offer a carbon neutral alternative to fossil fuels. Where they differ is in the process used to create each fuel; one is based on plants, whereas the other is based on energy.
Sustainable fuels, otherwise known as biofuels, harness the energy potential of plants. During the photosynthetic process, plants condense and absorb atmospheric CO2 to grow. Because of this, burning plants and biomass is a sustainable process of releasing the absorbed CO2, resulting in carbon neutral biofuels.
To create sustainable fuels a process called pyrolysis is performed. Biomass is heated at high temperatures of up to 700°C in an oxygen-free environment, which breaks down the biomass into pyrolysis vapour, gas and char. The vapours are then cooled and condensed into sustainable fuels. There are alternative methods such as gasification and hydrothermal liquefaction which suit different types of biomass, with the latter being better suited for algae.
E-fuels are produced via the binding of hydrogen from water and CO2 from the atmosphere. By using a high pressure catalyst, energy and electrolysis, hydrogen binds with CO2 from the atmosphere to create a liquid energy carrier similar to that of gasoline.
E-fuels are considered a nearly net neutral alternative to fossil fuels as it recycles CO2 in the atmosphere which is released when combusted. The ‘nearly’ neutral part comes from the fact that e-fuel production is extremely power hungry. As a solution, production plants use renewable energy sources to maintain a sustainable process.
The economical challenge of sustainable fuels and e-fuels
Both e-fuels and sustainable fuels present an alternative to fossil fuels without losing much in terms of energy density. They also operate the same as standard gasoline without needing any adjustment to internal combustion engines (ICE). As a result, existing ICE vehicles can run on carbon neutral fuel ahead of the combustion engine ban in 2030. So, why isn’t it available at every petrol station?
At the moment, sustainable fuels and e-fuels are in their infancy when it comes to commercial large-scale application. Sustainable fuels have been targeted at small classic vehicle markets and the racing industry, with brands like Sustain Classic. On the other hand, e-fuels and other synthetic fuels are still actively being developed by companies such as Porsche to be a truly commercial solution to green fuels.
The main factor that is inhibiting the commercial availability of these fuels is cost. E-fuels require significant amounts of power to produce, and sustainable fuels have an intricate process to reach the final product. Significant efforts are still required before these fuels can be as affordable as traditional diesel or petrol, since their processing facilities are costly and few and far between.
Can sustainable fuels and e-fuels compete with electric vehicles?
When discussing the topic of sustainable transportation, electric vehicles (EVs) have become the main talking point for the last decade. The worldwide electrification of the passenger vehicle, fleet vehicles and even construction vehicles has proven its place as a solution to fossil fuels. Moreover, governments around the globe are banning ICE engines by as early as 2030 to shift to electric alternatives.
But even with the rapid adoption of EVs, they still have a number of current challenges when compared to traditional combustion vehicles:
- Supply chain issues – The global shortage of semiconductor chips that are necessary for EV manufacture has coincided with the significant rise in EV demand. Additionally, lithium iron phosphate and lithium nickel manganese, the main materials used in modern EV batteries, have also become extremely sought after. Shortages of labour and materials have put a strain on the EV market, calling for optimisations and solutions moving into the future.
- Battery capacity – From the beginning of EV design, battery capacity and driving range has been a constant and significant challenge. EV range is a multilayered challenge that involves energy density, weight optimisation and battery technology, and is constantly being improved.
- Charging solutions – Another huge challenge that has run parallel to battery capacity is charging speed and solutions. This is especially prevalent with larger fleet vehicles that have a significant number of batteries to charge. Even with the ongoing development of Megawatt Charging Systems that can charge a large truck in 30 minutes, you can’t beat the convenience of simply filling up a tank (yet).
Each of these current challenges faced by EVs provides room for sustainable fuels and e-fuels to compete with EVs between now and 2030. They provide a sustainable solution that is free of charging time and range restrictions, whilst also providing the sustainable use of existing ICE vehicles. For businesses that cannot electrify their fleets for whatever reason, e-fuels and sustainable fuels present an alternative solution that shares the benefit of eliminating the use of fossil fuels.
Be prepared for the future of sustainable travel with Dalroad
There is constant innovation in the automotive industry to achieve sustainable solutions. E-fuels, sustainable fuels and EVs all have a place in achieving a greener industry, rather than competing with one another. To stay up to date with all the innovations in the industry, Dalroad provides all the necessary information you need.
At Dalroad, we provide unrivalled knowledge, expertise and experience across industries. We supply components and industrial controls for projects of all sizes across the UK & Europe.
To find out how our experience and expertise can help your sustainable design, contact a member of our team today.