Fuel Type: Hydrogen

Will there be enough e-fuels to save the internal-combustion engine?

E-fuels could prolong the life of the internal-combustion engine (ICE), keeping the technology relevant in a world that requires more sustainable transportation. But will there be enough of these synthetic fuels to go around?

Armed with new analysis, green group Transport and Environment (T&E) claims there will only be enough e-fuels to power roughly 2% of all the cars on Europe’s roads come 2035. However, the eFuel Alliance, an organisation committed to carbon-neutral fuels, points to a higher percentage being available sooner.

A fraction of the fleet

Combining hydrogen and CO2, the power-to-liquid process produces synthetic hydrocarbons, an artificial version of the chemicals found in fossil fuels. A refinery process then separates out different e-fuels for specific applications, including automotive and aviation.

Proponents claim there e-fuels can be used in new and used vehicles as either a drop-in solution to be combined with fossil fuels or as a stand-alone power source. With the impending 2035 100% carbon-emission reduction target set for new cars in Europe, these synthetic fuels hold the potential to keep ICE models on the road.

But using data from Concawe, the refining industry’s research unit, T&E forecasts that only five million of the 287 million cars on Europe’s roads in 2035 will be able to take advantage of e-fuels. This 2% figure would only rise to 3% if the existing car fleet switched to plug-in hybrids (PHEVs).

Source: T&E

‘Trojan horse’

The environmental group used this forecast to evidence its belief that e-fuels are a stalling tactic deployed by oil companies and engine makers to avoid the transmission to zero-emission technology. It urged EU lawmakers to resist the temptation of a synthetic-fuel loophole in emissions targets rules.

‘E-fuels are presented as a carbon-neutral way to prolong the life of combustion-engine technology,’ said Yoann Gimbert, e-mobility analyst at T&E. ‘But the industry’s own data shows there will only be enough for a tiny fraction of cars on the road. Lawmakers should close the door to this Trojan Horse for the fossil-fuel industry.’

T&E explained the industry’s forecast was based on e-fuel production in the EU but included carbon captured from industrial emitters. Synthetic fuels created with carbon from fossil-fuel sources could potentially lock in investment into fossil sources, slowing down decarbonisation. It said the projections also fail to clearly define how much renewable energy would be used during the creation of the e-fuels.

The group also pointed out that industry plans to import e-fuels are unrealistic as the production sites and standards required for certification do not exist. Taking synthetic fuels from other countries might also delay decarbonisation efforts in less developed economies.

‘In Europe, e-fuels for cars would suck up renewable electricity needed for the rest of the economy,’ said Gimbert. ‘Synthetic fuels that are made in Europe should be prioritised for planes and ships, most of which cannot use batteries to decarbonise.’

‘Clear intentions’

But Dr Tobias Block, head of strategy and content at the eFuel Alliance told Autovista24 that T&E’s intentions were clear. ‘Their position is an all-electric road sector without any role for climate-neutral combustion engines,’ he said.

Block went on to level a collection of criticisms at T&E’s 13-page publication. He pointed to eFuel Alliance analysis, which found that a mix of at least 5% synthetic fuels will be possible in the European market come 2030. ‘5% e-fuels are enough to power 40 million vehicles and to avoid 60 million tonnes of CO2 emissions,’ he said. This higher level is also backed by members of the alliance, who claim to be capable of increasing production capacities to meet the goal.

Block also pointed out that the Concawe study does not include the import of e-fuels to Europe. ‘E-fuels will be mainly produced in regions, in which renewable electricity generation is cheap and potentially abundant. For that reason, first projects are announced in Chile, Australia or the Middle East,’ he said. So, if these production locations are ignored, the availability of synthetic fuels would be much lower.

Furthermore, the Concawe study does not exist in isolation. There are many other pieces of research that have considered the global production of e-fuels. ‘For example, the Finnish LUT university foresees a huge potential of e-fuels already in 2030,’ Block said.

He explained that if synthetic fuels are not available, existing vehicles will continue to rely on those derived from fossils. To secure a place among the mobility systems of the future, e-fuels will continue to be dependent upon a supportive political framework, one which is not always present. So, the future of synthetic fuels appears undecided as arguments over supply, sustainability, and simple potential rumble on.

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Hydrogen vehicles in Europe – is there growing support?

While electromobility is in full swing, some European manufacturers are also working to bring hydrogen vehicles to the roads, writes Autovista24 journalist Rebeka Shaid.

With the EU planning to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035, European carmakers have shifted their focus to electromobility. But some manufacturers are exploring alternative powertrains, with hydrogen vehicles pitched as another ‘clean’ mode of transport.

Political backing came this month from the European Parliament, which has set minimum quotas for the use of hydrogen and synthetic fuels. By 2030, the share of so-called ‘renewable fuels of non-biological origin’ should make up at least 5.7% in the transport sector.

Two of the main hydrogen cars that are commercially available now are produced by Asian brands. Toyota’s Mirai and Hyundai’s Nexo are among the best-known hydrogen-based vehicles, but European car manufacturers are also diving into fuel-cell technology – both for passenger and commercial vehicles.

‘If we look at Europe, what we hear is the need for hydrogen is increasing dramatically,’ David Holderbach, CEO of Hyvia – a joint venture between Renault Group and hydrogen fuel-cell maker Plug Power – told Autovista24.  

Hydrogen vehicles are ‘the closest to diesel,’ according to Holderbach. ‘European OEMs are monitoring fuel-cell technology and have been working on it,’ he added, citing Renault’s endeavours to build hydrogen-powered cars.

The French brand introduced its concept car, the Scenic Vision, earlier this year – a prototype hydrogen fuel cell-powered SUV, which has a 75% smaller carbon footprint than a conventional battery-electric vehicle (BEV). But the car will not be available until the next decade, when electromobility will be the norm across Europe.

Hyvia, on the other hand, will start dispatching its first hydrogen vans later this year, coming with a range of up to 500km. ’10 years ago, it was clearly too early for Europe to be in the hydrogen business. Today, with what is happening in Europe – whether it is France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain – there is a big change. Infrastructure is coming and production is coming,’ Holderbach added.

Source: Hyvia

Going against the flow

While European car manufacturers are investing in hydrogen, camps remain divided on its use. BMW recently confirmed it has started producing fuel-cell systems for its hydrogen-powered iX5, describing it as a climate-friendly alternative. Hydrogen cars only emit water and warm air. They can be made from renewable energy resources, and BMW considers them to be a sustainable addition to BEVs.

But the Munich-based business is going against the flow as its German rivals do not generally view hydrogen technology as a viable solution for passenger cars. In 2018, Mercedes-Benz rolled out a hydrogen SUV, the GLC F-Cell, which has since disappeared from the market.

The GLC F-Cell was primarily delivered to customers in Germany and Japan, with the carmaker being selective from the outset by limiting the availability of the SUV. Mercedes-Benz is now clearly going down the electric path and is moving away from hydrogen technology.

‘The potential of fuel-cell technology and hydrogen as an energy-storage medium is beyond question. Nevertheless, the EV battery is currently superior to the fuel cell in terms of a large-volume market launch, especially for passenger cars, not least in view of the still small number of hydrogen fuel stations worldwide and the relatively high technology costs,’ Mercedes-Benz told Autovista24.

As another German luxury brand, Audi has similarly moved its attention away from hydrogen to concentrate on electrifying its fleet. It did consider developing a hydrogen car, dubbed the h-tron, but scrapped the concept a while ago.

While Audi, which is part of Volkswagen (VW) Group, told Autovista24 that it is responsible for the development and industrialisation of fuel-cell technology within the group, it said: ‘Under the current conditions, we do not see any significant field of application for fuel-cell propulsion in the passenger-car sector.’

Low-volume production

Like Mercedes-Benz, Audi cited challenges such as building an appropriate infrastructure. It added that high energy losses during the production of hydrogen are also problematic, as well as converting the fuel to green hydrogen, which is the most sustainable way of developing the fuel.

None of this is deterring BMW, which is also taking a vested interest in e-fuels. The manufacturer is following through with its hydrogen plans, believing in the future potential of fuel-cell technology for passenger vehicles. The company sees an advantage in the technology as it could lower reliance on rare-earth materials. That is because hydrogen-powered systems mainly rely on recyclable metals such as aluminium, steel, and platinum.

Another benefit for BMW is the battery in a fuel-cell electric vehicle, which is smaller than those used in a BEV as it is not the main source of power for the car. The iX5 features an electric motor and a high-performance battery. Cold temperatures are also not an issue for hydrogen-powered cars, which have a comparable range to electric vehicles and can be filled up in a few minutes.

‘We think hydrogen-powered vehicles are ideally placed technologically to fit alongside battery-electric vehicles and complete the electric-mobility picture,’ said BMW CEO, Oliver Zipse, at an event last month.

BMW will start low-volume production before the end of the year, with hydrogen enthusiast Toyota supplying individual fuel cells. The two car brands have been collaborating on fuel-cell drive systems since 2013, and BMW will initially test the hydrogen-powered vehicles on a small scale. But the company does not exclude large-scale production in the next five years – if the automotive market is ready by then.

Commercial vehicles

According to H2Stations.org, there were 685 hydrogen fuel stations worldwide last year, most of which can be found in Asia. In Europe, Germany leads the way, with around 100 refuelling stations. The German government is heavily funding hydrogen projects, but with infrastructure lagging behind worldwide and the variety of hydrogen models still limited, analysts believe that the fuel is unlikely to offer a breakthrough for passenger cars any time soon.

Source: IEA

However, the number of fuel-cell electric vehicles is on the rise, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) recording more than 40,000 vehicles in use globally by the end of June 2021. It noted that deployment is concentrated on passenger light-duty vehicles, which accounted for three quarters of the stock at the end of 2020.

For commercial vehicles then, such as trucks, busses and vans, hydrogen could play a bigger role. France-based Hyvia wants to offer an ecosystem that includes light-commercial vehicles (LCVs) with fuel cells, hydrogen refuelling stations, as well as the supply of carbon-free hydrogen and services for financing fleets.

The company aims to achieve a 30% market share in the hydrogen light-commercial vehicle market by 2030, and it wants to get there in a more sustainable way. Holderbach told Autovista24 that Hyvia aims to ‘lead green-hydrogen mobility.’ He believes that hydrogen-powered vans will quickly become available in Europe, within the next couple of years or so, with the brand presenting its vehicles at the IAA Mobility show in September.

‘It will start with hubs,’ Holderbach said, especially in places such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands. ‘When you create hubs, you have massive production of hydrogen for heavy-duty industries and light-commercial usage.’

Audi told Autovista24 that its competence centre for fuel-cell technology in Neckarsulm is continuing its research activities in the area. ‘The results of our development activities could become relevant for the Volkswagen Group in the medium term, particularly for light-commercial vehicles and trucks,’ the carmaker said.

German automotive supplier Bosch projects that one in eight newly-registered commercial vehicles worldwide will be powered by a fuel cell by the end of the decade. The company told Autovista24 that it initially sees the automotive use of hydrogen in the commercial-vehicle sector.

Various European carmakers have at one point or another announced hydrogen-powered commercial vehicles. Stellantis-owned Citroën is currently testing the ë-Jumpy Hydrogen, which can be filled up in three minutes and has a range of 400km. The automotive group has other hydrogen-based vehicles in the works, modelled on their BEV counterparts, including the Opel Vivaro-e and the Peugeot e-Expert.

LCVs are an obvious choice for hydrogen, Holderbach noted. So, what about the passenger-car market? ‘I think there will be a point where hydrogen can become more meaningful for passenger cars, but we first need to make the breakthroughs,’ he said.

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Can e-fuels save the internal-combustion engine?

E-fuels are being touted as a carbon-neutral alternative that some hope could keep internal-combustion engine (ICE) cars on the roads despite a looming ban, writes Autovista24 journalist Rebeka Shaid.

Do we want to save the planet or the internal-combustion engine? That question might sound provocative, but policies around transportation and mobility have centred on the environmental impact of diesel and petrol cars for years.

Fully-electric vehicles are seen as the solution as they have no tailpipe emissions. Still, ICE cars will not disappear from the roads in Europe any time soon, despite the EU planning to phase out the sale of new fossil-fuel-powered vehicles by 2035. This is where e-fuels come in – combustibles that have found both fans and critics.

What are e-fuels?

Simply put, e-fuels are synthetic fuels with their production based on hydrogen and CO2. Labelled as climate-neutral, these fuels use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and can, ideally, be produced using renewable energy resources.

Proponents, including automotive associations and some carmakers, argue e-fuels can relieve the climate of CO2 and may replace conventional fuels altogether. E-fuels also have a high energy density, are easy to store, and can be distributed by an already existing network of petrol stations.

Advocates tend to pitch synthetic fuels as a sustainable way to transform the transport sector. The eFuel alliance, whose members include numerous automotive suppliers such as Bosch, Mahle, and ZF, told Autovista24: ‘We strongly believe that the climate targets cannot be achieved without e-fuels. E-fuels are climate friendly, contrary to what critics claim. To produce e-fuels, CO2 is used from the air and liquefied using water and renewable energy.’

Mazda was the first carmaker to join the alliance, arguing that CO2-neutral fuels could contribute to automotive manufacturers’ emissions reduction efforts. With the EU reviewing carbon emissions standards for cars and vans, e-fuels have once again become a hotly debated topic.

Opinions are split

In Germany, transport minister Volker Wissing recently emphasised that new ICE cars should still be relevant beyond 2035 if they can be topped up with e-fuels. This opinion has caused a rift, not only among politicians but also among carmakers.

Volvo Cars is leaving the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) because its sustainability strategy does not match ACEA’s. The powerful lobbying group supports the use of what it calls CO2-neutral fuels while the Swedish car manufacturer is betting on an all-electric future.

Others are not jumping ship despite considering the future of mobility to be broadly electric. Mercedes-Benz told Autovista24 that while it is preparing to go fully-electric by 2030 where market conditions allow, it was: ‘intensively involved in ACEA’s positioning on the EU Commission’s “Fit for 55” legislative initiative.’ The manufacturer added it was ‘continuously committed to a more progressive positioning of ACEA on the way to climate-neutral mobility.’

Meanwhile, German rival BMW wants to keep its options open. The group’s CEO Oliver Zipse is backing the use of e-fuels as opinions on them remain divided – even within the same company.

The head of Volkswagen (VW) Group, Herbert Diess, told a German media outlet that the efficiency of synthetic fuels was extremely poor. He also questioned the cost effectiveness and high-energy consumption required to produce them.

VW subsidiary Audi once seemed convinced by e-fuels but appears to have changed tack, saying synthetic fuels are not the future. But Porsche, which has been part of VW Group for more than a decade, is still heavily investing in the synthetic fuel. The sportscar maker has teamed up with Siemens Energy and other companies to build an industrial plant in Chile, which will be dedicated to the production of an ‘almost carbon-neutral e-fuel.’

Porsche plans for 80% of its sales to be made up electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030. The company told Autovista24: ‘Climate protection must be considered holistically. Synthetic fuels are a useful addition to electromobility to make a contribution to CO2 reduction. We must also offer the owners of existing vehicles a perspective. Compared to pure hydrogen, e-fuels made from water and carbon dioxide extracted from the air for automobiles, airplanes or ships have the advantage that they can be transported more easily.’

While Germany’s carmakers are following different approaches, the country’s powerful association of the automotive industry (VDA) is in favour of synthetic fuels. ‘E-fuels could become a permanent fixture in transport in the future and make an important contribution to climate protection,’ it states.

Is carbon-neutrality enough?

After a key meeting among environment ministers last month to debate the phase-out of ICE cars in Europe, the EU has now left a door open for carbon-neutral fuels. In other words: synthetic fuels could be used past the 2035 deadline.

A spokesperson for the European Council told Autovista24 that the agreement: ‘includes a recital, giving the possibility to the Commission to make a new proposal to allow the use of CO2-neutral fuels beyond 2035.’

Supporters of e-fuels want to keep the internal-combustion engine alive. After all, synthetic fuels could not only continue to power ordinary passenger cars, but also hyper- and sportscars, with Porsche planning to use synthetic fuels in motorsports. But this approach does not come without criticism.

Synthetic fuels will likely be considered in sectors where electrification is currently not plausible, but critics warn that the automotive use of e-fuels would send the wrong signal to car manufacturers and consumers. They suggest that using synthetic fuels in the long term would do more harm than good and delay the transformation to electromobility.

The shortcomings

There are clear downsides to e-fuels, as campaigners point out that these fuels still emit pollutants. Energy loss is also an issue as the efficiency of e-fuels is lower compared to battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). Energy gets lost when converting electricity into synthetic fuel, giving these combustibles an efficiency of around 15%.

To make e-fuels carbon neutral, renewable energy has to be used. This would mean depending on countries that have the capacity to produce enough green electricity. Additionally, producing e-fuels is expensive and consumers are going to feel those costs.

‘The production cost of the amount of e-fuels required for driving a combustion engine car 100km is nearly 10 times the production cost of the amount of renewable electricity for driving a battery-electric car the same distance,’ according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

synthetic fuels
Source: ICCT

The eFuel alliance is rejecting critics and told Autovista24: ‘The biggest criticism levelled against e-fuels is the apparent inefficiency, because a lot of renewable electricity is needed to produce e-fuels. However, this argument can be invalidated if we think globally. E-fuels can be produced worldwide in places with abundant sun and wind and transported via the existing infrastructure.’

So, will e-fuels be able to save the combustion engine? The German Climate Alliance told Autovista24 that synthetic fuels would, at most, be a niche in the future.

‘E-fuels are not yet available in significant quantities, are inefficient and very expensive. The best alternative – it is cheap, efficient and can already be implemented today – is called electrification. E-fuels only make a contribution to climate protection if it can be guaranteed that they are actually produced exclusively with renewable electricity and are only used where there are no better alternatives. This is not the case on the road.’

Synthetic fuels may provide a lifeline for companies that have their business models threatened as the industry switches to electric. These fuels could potentially have their merits under the condition that their production relies solely on renewable energy. They would also need to be accessible and economical. But even if these criteria are met, it does not mean e-fuels are good for the environment. Realistically, they might only be used as a bridging technology.