There are great advances in synthetic fuels for the car. The problem is that no one believes in them

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Last June 8 the European Union ratified a measure that had been on the table for a long time. With 339 votes in favor and 249 against, the European Parliament approved the impossibility of selling combustion engine vehicles as of 2035. Neither hybrids of any kind.

In said vote, however, a small exception was established. A small door that Germany and Italy, promoters of it, want to exploit: synthetic fuels. Both countries managed to get the wording of the text to specify that the possibility will be studied to sell combustion engines to use zero-emission synthetic fuels.

Some have seen a glimmer of hope here to save combustion propellants. But what are these synthetic fuels And why are there so many hopes pinned on them? Will we see a change of course in Europe?

What are synthetic fuels

The idea of ​​using synthetic fuels is not new. In fact, the Nazis already used them during World War II. In fact, production was such that in 1944 they reached a volume of 25.5 million barrels.

These synthetic fuels are alternatives to fossil fuels to work in traditional combustion engines. One of the best known is e-diesel, a synthetic diesel created in 2014 by Audi in collaboration with the technology company Sunfire.

This e-diesel is made by using water and CO2 to create a synthetic diesel that can run in today’s diesel engines. First, the water is heated to 800º to separate the oxygen from the hydrogen in a small reactor. The hydrogen remains inside, while the oxygen is released into the atmosphere.


With the molecules already separated, CO2 is incorporated into the hydrogen and the mixture is brought to the temperature and pressure necessary to create liquid fuel. This one, blue in color, is refined so that it can be used in diesel engines and can be traded.

The great advantage of these synthetic fuels is that their carbon footprint is zero. In fact, they emit less CO2 than the one recovered during its production, so in that sense it improves air quality.

But not everything revolves around CO2. One of the main problems with synthetic fuels is that they are highly inefficient. In fact, his efficiency is estimated at 16%, compared to 72% of electric vehicles.

And besides, they are expensive. Very expensive. Its high inefficiency and the immense structure that must be assembled for its production means that the calculations place the price of these fuels between three and four euros each liter sold to the driver. In fact, Audi has already scrapped the idea of ​​producing these synthetic fuels.

“Synthetic fuels are just one transition technology for us. Although the use of these alternative fuels may be ideal for other industries, the future of the automobile lies in electric vehicles,” said Oliver Hoffmann, Head of Technical Development at Audi. last march.

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The what and the where

While we have focused on CO2 so far, this is not the only thing that counts in determining whether synthetic fuels have any future with us.

As the events surrounding Euro 7 are developing, it is very difficult to think that pure combustion vehicles may have any future when this new homologation standard comes into force. At the moment, the emissions limit of CO2 is 95 gr/km but we want to reduce this amount until it almost disappears.

This would not be a problem for cars that run on synthetic fuels, because as we have seen they do not generate this type of polluting emission. But Euro 7 regulates another type of dangerous particles for human beings, such as NOx. And, here, fossil fuels hit a virtually insurmountable barrier.

E Fuels Nox Emissions Transp 1024x695

According to Transport & Environmentsynthetic fuels are indistinguishable from fossil fuels if we look at their NOx emissions. They ensure that a gasoline vehicle emits 24 mg/km of this type of particles and that a synthetic fuel vehicle expels between 22 and 23 mg/km.

In their tests, these types of fuels also did not benefit from ammonia records, which doubled the emissions of a gasoline vehicle. In both cases, they are two types of particles that the Euro 7 regulations wants to leave in almost non-existent figures, which will force the vast majority of the car park to be seriously electrified.

These are two practically insurmountable problems for synthetic fuels. We must bear in mind that Europe wants to eliminate CO2 emissions from the atmosphere of cities, but also NOx and other fine particles (which are the most harmful to the lungs) including even brake disc shavings.

In fact, it should not be ruled out that in the medium term, plug-in hybrids will be forced to circulate in exclusively electric mode within cities. GPS measurement makes this easy and trials are already underway with emission radars that analyze which cars are using combustion engines and if they are expelling more polluting substances than those allowed.

Are the Germans and Italians crazy?

No, they are not crazy. It must be borne in mind that in the European Parliament each country defends its own interests. And in Germany and Italy, the automobile industry is very powerful. In fact, the latter have long been demanding an extension for combustion engines.

Carlos Tavares, CEO of Stellantis, has long attacks the European Union for this reason, ensuring that hybrids are a better short-term solution than electric ones. Thierry Breton, the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner, went so far as to say on a trip to Lombardy that manufacturers must continue to produce combustion cars… in order to sell them outside Europe.

Also from Italy they have been claiming for a long time that the trademarks of short productions do not have to abide by strict emission limits. In practice, luxury firms do not comply with the same rules. Finally, this exception is considered for firms that produce less than 1,000 units per year.

In other words, there may be real intentions behind Germany and Italy pressing to maintain the production of combustion vehicles beyond 2035 but, in practice, they have only managed to study this possibility for very specific contexts. It seems like a move aimed more at improve public image than to make real progress.

anecdotal cases

The hard limits imposed for the production of combustion engines will force a massive electrification. And with this electrification it seems that we are on our way to losing the low ranges and the most affordable models. Precisely the ones that give manufacturers the least profit margin.

If we take into account that synthetic fuels point to exorbitant prices for the consumer and that they want to remove vehicles that expel polluting substances (whatever their quantity) through their exhaust pipes from the cities, there are only two scenarios on the table: heavy transport and high-performance sports cars.

In the first case, the difficulty of the transition to electricity could encourage an investment in synthetic fuels. Especially in those vehicles that refrain from circulating in a city and are limited to large logistics hubs.

Porsche 911 Targa 4 Gts 2022 1600 21

If we talk about the supercars, here the price of fuel and sale to the public matter less. The most expensive vehicles could assume the impediment of not entering the cities and, if they are plug-in hybrids with small combustion engines, it is understandable that a buyer of this type of car could face their overprice.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Porsche is investing 20 million euros in a large synthetic fuel production plant built in Patagonia. Or that BMW has distanced itself from Audi and Mercedes and confirmed that they will continue to develop combustion engines. Yes, large.

are cases exceptional. It should not be forgotten that, forced, manufacturers are making extraordinary efforts to adapt to a complete electrification of their ranges for the not so distant future. Investments in gigafactories are recurrent, the Stellantis Group even invests in lithium mining companies and Ford has restructured itself to have two brands under its umbrella, one exclusively for electric cars.

In Europe we have forced manufacturers to embrace, whether they like it or not, the electrification of all vehicles. And the possible alternatives arrive late or will serve for anecdotal cases.

Last June 8 the European Union ratified a measure that had been on the table for a long time. With…

Last June 8 the European Union ratified a measure that had been on the table for a long time. With…

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