The sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned in many countries (but not the UK) after 2030, so the internal combustion engine (ICE) appears to have no future. But what if there was a way for car makers to keep selling ICEs without increasing carbon dioxide emissions?
Enter e-fuels: synthetic fuels that can be used in existing ICEs without modification and, in theory, could significantly reduce their carbon footprint. But are they a realistic solution, or just a temporary stay of execution?
What are e-fuels?
E-fuels, or electrofuels, are synthetic fuels made from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, or hydropower. They can be used in existing petrol and diesel engines without modification, meaning they could offer a way to reduce emissions from the millions of vehicles that are already on the road.
There are several types of e-fuels, but the most relevant are power-to-liquid (PtL) and power-to-gas (PtG).
PtL involves taking carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and combining it with hydrogen, which is produced by splitting water molecules using renewable energy. The result is a liquid fuel that can be used in existing petrol and diesel engines. HIF Global is one such company focusing on the production of PtL fuels.
PtG, on the other hand, involves using renewable energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be combined with CO2 to produce a gas that can be used for heating or transportation.
Where have e-fuels been approved for use?
E-fuels are not widely available or approved for use in most countries. However, several European nations, including Germany, Sweden, and Norway, have already approved the use of e-fuels in their transport sectors. Only Germany is planning to use them in cars at the moment, though.
In the UK, the government has ruled them out as a low-carbon alternative to petrol and diesel. In fact, the UK is resolute in its determination to focus on zero-emission vehicles; there are proposals to implement a 'ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) mandate' from 2024, where 22 per cent of cars sold by manufacturers will have to be EVs. Fail to do that, and penalties of at least £15k per vehicle will have to be paid. However, following the Government's announcement that it has scrapped the 2030 deadline for sales of new petrol and disel cars, there's a chance that this 22 per cent mandate could be diluted.
Could e-fuels halt the upcoming UK ban on new ICEs?
The UK is banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035. This means that consumers will no longer be able to buy new cars with ICEs after these dates. However, sales of used petrol and diesel vehicles will continue and it's likely that petrol stations will continue to exist for many years to come, albeit with increasing amounts of space given over to electric vehicle (EV) charging bays.
If sales of EVs don't accelerate as anticipated, e-fuels could be approved for use in the UK and could offer a way for consumers to continue buying new petrol and diesel cars beyond 2035 without increasing emissions.
But the production of e-fuels requires a significant amount of renewable energy, which could compete with electricity production for electric vehicles (EVs). Secondly, the growth of e-fuels could potentially slow down the installation of charging points for EVs, because resources would be diverted to the production and distribution of e-fuels.
If e-fuels were to become widely available and approved for use, consumers may be less likely to switch to EVs, because they would have a low-carbon alternative to petrol and diesel. This could slow down the transition to EVs and ultimately make it harder for the UK to meet its climate targets.
We'll have to wait until we're closer to the middle of the next decade to see how EV infrastructure and sales change before it can be said if e-fuels have a future in the UK. If government policy remains unchanged, though, it looks unlikely.