Synthetic Fuels – The Future Of Enthusiast Motoring?

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I think it’s fair to say that most car enthusiasts are at least slightly worried about what the future holds for cars powered by internal combustion engines.

Regardless of peoples’ views on climate change (for this website is certainly no place for politics!) we can surely all agree on this fact – governments around the world are phasing out fossil fuels, and as no government yet has expressly guaranteed the future of classic/enthusiast cars, this may cause a potential problem for those of us who enjoy using them.

But could “synthetic fuels” hold the key to the future of enthusiast motoring?

First, a short word on “Electric Cars”.

Let me lay my stall out here, I’m not in any way “anti electric cars”. 

I actually think they are amazing feats of engineering and another example of what humans can achieve when necessity demands it. I also believe that for the vast majority of car owners (people who see a car as something to take them from A to B and nothing more) the electric car is the perfect solution. Quiet, eco-friendly, easy to maintain, and cheap to run. 

I’ll even go so far as to say – I’m actually somewhat in awe of electric cars… from a technological standpoint that is. 

I’ll even go so far as to say – I’m actually somewhat in awe of electric cars… from a technological standpoint that is. 

But here’s the problem. As a car enthusiast, that “technological awe” is sadly where my love for electric cars ends. An objective appreciation for them, but not a desire to drive them, or own them. 

Electric Tesla Model S

I know that the way they accelerate tends to embarrass mid-engined super cars, and that their range is as good as most combustion engine powered cars (certainly our old gas guzzling classics!).

But for me personally, electric cars lack emotion, and the uniqueness of character that you get with older cars.

Let me explain where I’m coming from here… 

Mechanical masterpieces. Functional, but somehow, also beautiful.

Ask yourself this … “What makes a Mercedes C63 AMG different from an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish, or different from an Air Cooled 911?”

Is it the shape and styling, or the interior, or the badge? No, it’s the power plant. It’s the way the engine feels and sounds that gives many cars their unique character and personality.

It’s the way certain cylinder capacities and layouts apply power in different ways. It’s the way V12’s scream blue murder at 11,000 rpm, whilst torque-rich V8’s shift through gears like claps of thunder. It’s the way a four-cylinder engine on side-draught carbs pops and crackles on the down-change. It’s the iconic raspiness of a flat-six boxer on full chat. It’s the pulse-quickening ‘calm before the storm’ of an early turbo-charged car. These are the things that make these “traditional cars” unique. 

It’s the way V12’s scream blue murder at 11,000 rpm, whilst torque-rich V8’s shift through gears like claps of thunder. It’s the way a four-cylinder engine on side-draught carbs pops and crackles on the down-change.

But when it comes to electric vehicles, with their deafening silence, and virtually homogenous drivetrains, well… they’re all going to feel pretty darn similar aren’t they?

To make matters worse (from the car enthusiasts perspective of course) electric cars weigh a ton – actually in most cases over two tons! Also the eye watering development costs that have already gone into making electric vehicles, means most car companies have agreed to sharing a small handful of platforms these cars will sit on.

So how exactly will electric cars distinguish themselves? Can they ever? And if not, will they ever hold a place in the car enthusiasts heart? You are free to disagree, but I think not.

And this brings me back to the title of this article – synthetic fuels, and more importantly why I think they will save the enthusiast car.

What are synthetic fuels?

There are a number of different types of “synthetic fuel” out there – but the one we’re talking about here is what Porsche has dubbed “E-Fuel”.

To put it very simply the core idea of E-fuel is rather than being dug up from the ground like traditional fuel (thereby releasing gases that were previously locked up under the earths crust into the atmosphere upon combustion) synthetic fuel is manufactured using carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. In other words – it aims to be carbon-nuetral!

Without going into the scientific detail here (because I’ll make a total hash of it) the basic idea is this. Electrolysis is used to split water in hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon is then taken from the atmosphere and combined with the hydrogen to make a liquid fuel very similar to that we already run in our cars.

The big industries investing heavily in this E-Fuel claim that most cars will run on it with little to no modifications. Though I should be clear here… I’ve not had the pleasure of testing E-Fuel in my old Capri yet… so I’m not sure how this translates to classic cars….

Are Synthetic Fuels Already Available?

E-fuel is, largely carbon neutral. I say “largely” because there are some losses involved in the manufacturing process. This however surely cannot be seen at too much of an issue because if so, then electric vehicles have a very large elephant of their own to confront there. Just how much environmental damage is being done actually making these electric cars, and mining the raw materials for all these batteries?

Synthetic fuels genuinely offer a glimmer of hope for those people who love the emotion of the combustion engine (and believe that without it, cars just become a means of getting from A to B) but who also understand that we DO need to stop pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere if our children and grandchildren are to enjoy anything that resembles the lifestyle we know and love.

They’re not readily available yet, but evidence suggests that we’re not that far away from seeing these synthetic fuels being on our forecourts. What’s really exciting to me is that Porsche (no doubt desperate to keep the 911 from turning electric) have cottoned on to this, and are investing hundreds of millions already into the development of synthetic fuels. Other big manufacturers including Bosh are doing the same.

So What’s The Catch?

Well initially it’s going to be cost. Any new technology is expensive at first (as the manufacturers try to claw back the gargantuan development costs and before the new technologies become commoditised). However over time, as the technological costs of production decrease and provided the demand is strong, some industry experts believe that synthetics could be cheaper than what we currently pay for our ‘fossil fuel’ fuel! 

At the moment, producing synthetic fuels is a complex and expensive process. However, a production ramp-up and favourable electricity prices could mean that synthetic fuels become significantly cheaper. Present studies suggest that the fuel itself (excluding any excise duties) could cost between 1.00 and 1.40 euros a litre in the long run.

Bosch.com – website

So classic car enthusiasts – worry no more! It looks like a viable, eco-friendly solution to keeping our old gas guzzlers going could be just around the corner!

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