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Posted by Matt Bell on 6th January 2020

Amidst the fight against climate change, owners of classic cars may find themselves sitting rather uncomfortably. With the drive towards EVs, the proliferation of lower emission zones, the general demonisation of the internal combustion engine and environmental activists like Greta Thunberg so prevalent in the media, there can be little doubt we are on the cusp of a cultural upheaval that would seem to leave the cars we know and love out in the cold. But are EVs the only answer, or could synthetic fuel be a new hope for keeping older vehicles on the road?

Synthetic fuels, or synfuels, have been discussed for many years. On paper, they sound fantastic, with the potential to replace fossil fuels and make existing petrol and diesel cars CO2 neutral. But while the technology exists to make such fuels, it’s far or from easy or cheap.

Synfuels are produced by combining hydrogen and CO2. Hydrogen can be extracted from water using renewable energy, but for a liquid fuel, carbon is required. This carbon can be recycled from industrial processes or even captured from the air in the form of CO2 using filters, thus turning a greenhouse gas into a resource. Burning synfuel does release CO2 back into the air, but because it can be recaptured, the process is nearly a closed loop.

That all makes it sound simple, but it isn’t. Unlike conventional biofuels, they can be produced without the volume limitations, such as the amount of farming land available, and aren’t affected by a limited supply of food stock or waste materials. However, you need still need a mechanism for carbon capture, and getting the hydrogen requires electrolysis to extract it from water – a process that takes plenty of electricity to achieve. These issues mean incredibly expensive production costs.

Nevertheless, there’s hope. At the recent Association for Petroleum & Explosives Administration (APEA) conference, attendees were also told that synthetic fuel could arrive on the market by as soon as 2025. Stefan Kunter, managing director and CEO of the Elaflex group of companies, also iterated that they could make a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions from transport without making changes to vehicles or infrastructure.

Synthetic Fuel

Racing ahead

The development process could be considerably accelerated by the developments in Formula One racing. The sport has recognised that it must reflect widespread public opinion on the climate emergency if it is to prosper, and last month pledged to deliver on an ambitious programme to carbon neutral within 11 years. Ambitious because according to the FIA, which has been working with sustainability experts over the past 12 months, Formula One currently emits 256,551 tonnes of CO2 per race season.

The information being filtered down by the FIA suggests that only 0.7 percent of that figure comes from the engines. Nevertheless, new net zero-carbon power units are to be developed. In 2021, 10 percent use of biofuel will be mandatory, but that’s just the start. The intention is to wipe out the carbon footprint by developing synthetic fuel that uses carbon capture. F1 CEO Chase Carey said: “We believe we can deliver the first net-zero carbon hybrid internal combustion engine that hugely reduces carbon emissions around the world.”

Again, this process won’t be cheap or easy, but Formula One is well placed to lead the way. It’s a major industry, with more than 40,000 people employed and an annual turnover of around £9 billion in the UK alone. The new Le Mans Hypercars category would also seem to be a great platform for synfuels, and the hope is that it will eventually filter through to road-going transport.

It’s also important to remember that we will probably be working from a significantly different baseline too. Cars in the future are likely to have a much stronger electric bias, but electric airliners and cargo ships are still decades from being viable and so may increase the push towards a synthetic future.

This would all appear to be a good thing for classics and historic vehicles, as it would make existing petrol and diesel cars sustainable, as well as the existing filling station network. In theory, synfuels could also be added to conventional fuels to help reduce CO2 emissions. In this way, they could contribute to the cause even before they are ramped up for larger-scale production.

It’s all very speculative at this stage, but should they be properly funded to reduce production costs, synfuels could at least provide another potential route towards achieving our carbon neutral goals. Battery-powered vehicles could well become the dominant species, but it seems sensible to pursue other solutions rather than relying on just the one. Done successfully, we may be able to continue enjoying our classics as they are for years to come, guilt free.