Synthetic Fuels Can Give the World Clean Gasoline
The Internal Combustion Engine Could Remain a Useful Alternative
The worldwide move from fossil fuel to clean & renewable energy sources is gaining momentum. As a result, industries as diverse as power production, personal and commercial transportation, aviation and agriculture are looking to leave a net-zero footprint on the environment as soon as possible. Federal and State regulators are passing stringent standards for automotive and equipment manufacturers to meet, and these rulings are driving companies to become even more creative in producing cleaner burning vehicles and machinery.
What this means for the Auto-Diesel-EV technicians entering the workforce is that they could encounter vehicles on the roads and in repair shops that might be powered by a multitude of fuels in a diverse layout of drivetrains. As fuel companies develop new and different solutions to meet clean emission goals, these technologies will be refined. They might also spawn competitive designs that might reveal further hybridization of technologies. In the near future, it might not be a stretch to see a synthetically-fueled hybrid, or a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine share the same road as a fully-electric vehicle, a fossil-fuel powered vehicle or an electric vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell instead of a battery. A skilled technician will need to be able to service and repair all of these types of vehicles.
For now, the world will need fossil fuel power until EV vehicles gain a wide charging network and a streamlined, reliable flow of minerals to be available for battery production. These networks are being developed, and EV batteries are being refined to charge faster and give longer range. We’re on our way, but haven’t reached that point yet, so we need to find ways to continue using our gas-powered vehicles while battery technology gets perfected. In the meantime, something cleaner may be needed to bridge the gap. Synthetic fuels can be another alternative fuel solution, and renewable synthetic fuel can now become a part of the energy-mosaic that is our clean-climate solution.
Electric vehicles are a marvel of engineering technology, and they represent an excellent solution for a clean-energy future. A current drawback is that most EV and hybrid vehicles can be expensive, so in the near future most transportation will continue to use internal combustion engines as EVs continue to be refined.
The Internal Combustion Engine Becomes Part of the Climate Solution
Up until now, it has been a foregone conclusion that the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered, and that internal combustion powered cars will go extinct. That might not be true anymore. The arrival of the first commercially available synthetic fuel now gives drivers of gas-powered automobiles and trucks in the United Kingdom a clean driving experience. The new product is called blue gasoline, and is the first commercially-available synthetic gasoline now available in the UK. It is the product of Coryton Advanced Fuels Ltd, a specialty fuels maker. Coryton’s blue gasoline has demonstrated that the concept of a clean, sustainable fuel can keep the internal combustion engine alive and well. It has been adopted by The Mazda UK Heritage fleet and used as a racing fuel in the Dakar Rally of 2022. It is now available to the public in somewhat limited quantities.
While availability of Coryton’s blue gasoline in the UK makes but a small dent in the amount required for mass consumption, it announces a new age of promising fuels for the present day. As the current limits of EV availability and actual use became more apparent, competitors stepped-in to develop various types of synthetic fuels. These fuels are becoming a reality for the everyday driver. Major brands in the automotive and fuel industries are expending huge research and development (R&D) budgets on synthetic fuel development, and the players involved read like an A-list of the transportation industry; brands include companies like Bosch, Exxon, Shell, Porsche, and Bertone. And there are many more.
Together they represent tens of billions of dollars in dedicated R&D, and are now perfecting fuels produced from water and carbon capture, ethanol-based fuels, and even fuel from recycled plastic waste. The latter is the work of Bertone, the famed Italian auto design company who partnered with Select Fuels to produce the gasoline1. Bertone is the company responsible for such incredibly wild designs as the Lamborghini Miura and Countach supercars, many Alfa Romeo models, and the Ferrari 308GT4.
While producing low-CO2 fuels is a huge step in the right direction, creating a fuel that closes the production loop, meaning a fully carbon-neutral synthetic fuel cycle, is the ultimate prize.
How Closed-Cycle Synthetic Fuel Production Works
Gasoline is made by removing oil from the ground, producing fuels from it, and emitting CO2 as a result of internal combustion. This is an open-ended system that produces CO2 faster than the environment can remove it through photosynthesis. This is the heart of the climate issue, and the ultimate goal would be to close that loop, and consume whatever CO2 we produce. This means creating a process that recycles the byproducts of combustion back into fuel again, and if perfected, represents a near limitless supply of fuel with zero-emissions.
Closed-cycle synthetic fuel production requires a vast amount of energy to work, which can be drawn from existing nuclear power. Solar and wind power can also be harnessed to power this process, and we’ll explore momentarily how this is being accomplished. All of these methods can contribute to producing the energy needed to power a closed-cycle synthetic fuel production system from an emission-free source2.
Simply put, synthetic fuel is made from captured carbon dioxide instead of fossilized carbon from crude oil. The process is analogous to how trees take in carbon dioxide from animal and human respiration, and convert it to back into an energy source to start the cycle over again. In the case of synthetic fuels, a high-energy source needs to release the captured carbon to return it to a state where it can be used as fuel again.
Energy from many sources can be used to do this, with nuclear energy being the best candidate. This is because the energy-density of nuclear power is vastly concentrated, it is clean and the flow of power is stable. Power can also be drawn from hydro, solar, wind and even tidal power. The goal is to use the most efficient mode available to convert carbon using an efficient catalyst to turn it into usable fuel.
Who’s Who in the Closed-Cycle Synthetic Fuel Competition
The companies involved in the closed-cycle production of synthetic fuel is a long list of the most prolific and experienced firms in the automotive and fuels industries. Here is how some of the firms are perfecting their methods of synthetic fuel production:
Zero Petroleum Pulls CO2 from the Atmosphere
Zero Petroleum’s process uses renewable energy in the form of electricity from solar and wind farms. This powers the electrolytic action that pulls hydrogen from water. This process uses the carbon directly from the surrounding atmosphere. The two elements are synthesized to make gasoline, diesel fuel or natural gas. Scrubbing greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and using it as a raw material has the added benefit of helping cool the planet. The resulting fuel can be easily served from existing gas stations3. Zero Petroleum also has a contract with Britain’s Royal Air Force, who has tested Zero Petroleum’s renewable jet fuel with the intention of making the Royal Air Force carbon neutral by 20403.
Porsche & Joint Venture Partners Use Wind-Power to Create Synthetic Fuel
Porsche, makers of fine high-end sports cars for over 70 years, is using wind-power to run its synthetic fuel pilot plant in Southern Chile. This area was selected due to its consistent high-velocity wind currents. Opened in 2022, the plant produced 130,000 liters of synthetic fuel in its first year. This proof-of-concept facility is a joint venture with Siemens Energy, Enel, ExxonMobil and Chile’s Gasco & ENAP through AME, the Chilean firm that is leading the project3.
Their process uses water and air as the two raw materials, and produces fuel using the Methanol to Gasoline process. This is the same input material used by Zero Petroleum. The Methanol-to-Gasoline process creates Ch3OH (known as eMethanol) from the reaction between H2 and CO2. It is then converted to a fuel that meets the European Union’s fuel standard EN-228. This process can also be used to produce kerosene for turbine aircraft to use as jet fuel3.
Bosch-Mobility Renewable Synthetic Fuel is Already in Use
"Bosch and other companies are already using reduced-CO2 fuels in their corporate fleets. So, as you can see, the technical issues have been solved"4
- Ansgar Christ, Expert for synthetic and regenerative fuels at Bosch
Bosch manufacturers a renewable synthetic fuel that is ready-to-use in existing gasoline powered vehicles. It can be used as a standalone product, or pumped right into the tank to mix with existing gasoline. Bosch creates their biofuels from waste materials that contain carbon – the source element that is converted into fuel. The result is a fuel that satisfies EU legislation due to the reduction of greenhouse gases.
Simply put, a biofuel must meet the European Union’s sustainability goals to permit use, and Bosch’s fuel meets EN-228 Standards for gasoline vehicles, and EN-590 Standards for diesel-powered vehicles. The future is here, as suggested by Bosch-Mobility when they stated “CO2 can be drawn from the atmosphere for the production of renewable synthetic fuels, which establishes a carbon-neutral cycle and a practically limitless fuel supply4.”
Why Synthetic Fuels Matter to Everyone
Renewable synthetic fuels are now a reality, and the scalability of production is being developed to give the consumer another alternative that includes keeping their gasoline-powered vehicles running into the future. The concept is proven, and the fuel is already in fleet use. The goal is to scale production of this clean fuel and make it available to everyone. Any individual who claims to take the health of the environment seriously cannot discount the importance of renewable synthetic fuel, or ignore the many current limitations of electric-only vehicles.
The smooth transition to a cleaner fuel future can possibly include the use of the billions of already-existing vehicles with gasoline and diesel powered engines. This can keep the world moving and transportation within reach of almost any budget. While the world continues planning and developing an electric-vehicle future, renewable synthetic fuel can be a solution for our present.
The Takeaway for aspiring automotive & diesel technicians is this; the reality of renewable synthetic fuel can extend the lives of existing gasoline & diesel powered vehicles, and also fuel hybrid vehicles. A technician's goal should be to continue honing their internal-combustion, electric, and hybrid vehicle maintenance skills, while developing a strong knowledge base of the new fuel types as they enter the market. This can only create a more knowledgeable and capable technician.
1 Article “BERTONE GB110: The Rebirth Is A Limited Series Hypercar” as published on February 9, 2023, at https://www.carrozzieri-italiani.com/the-new-bertone-gb110/. Retrieved July 18, 2023.
2 Article “Using Nuclear Energy to Produce Synthetic Fuels - A carbon-capture expert on synthesizing low-carbon fuels” by Pratchi Patel, Published April 4, 2023, at https://spectrum.ieee.org/synthetic-fuel. Retrieved July 18, 2023.
3 Article “Europe Looks To Allow Synthetic Fuels For Cars After All” by Michael Taylor, Published March 23, 2023 , at https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltaylor/2023/03/21/europe-looks-to-allow-synthetic-fuels-for-cars-after-all/, Retrieved July 19, 2023.
4 Bosch Corporate Website https://www.bosch-mobility.com/en/mobility-topics/energy/synthetic-fuels/, Retrieved August 10, 2023.