Porsche invests extra $75m in synthetic fuels

Published: 06 April 2022

 Encouraging test results from non-fossil fuels 
 Formula 1 could be among customers 
 Glimmer of hope for clean non-electric future

Porsche has shown its faith in synthetic fuels by making a huge new investment in a company building a plant that will produce fuels that enable ‘nearly’ CO2-neutral operation of combustion engines.

It takes to around $100m Porsche’s investment in synthetic fuels, and gives it a stake of 12.5% in HIF Global, which expects to start producing the fuels at the new plant in Punta Arenas, Chile, this year.

The synthetic fuel – called eFuel by Porsche – is created by splitting water into oxygen and green hydrogen, then combining CO2 with the green hydrogen to produce synthetic methanol, which is then converted into eFuel, which can be used in regular combustion engines. 

The project is not just about cars, though, as eFuel can also be used in aviation and shipping. And as part of the creation of eFuel, e-methanol is produced, which can replace raw materials of fossil origin in the chemical industry. HIF is exploring possibilities for producting sustainable fuels in Australia and the USA, using solar power rather than the wind energy that drives the Chile scheme.

Porsche R&D chief Michael Steiner said: ‘There is more and more willingness to cross from fossil to renewable. We see ourselves as pioneers in eFuels and want to drive the technology. This is one building block in our clear, overall sustainability strategy.’

Porsche’s eFuel had performed well in tests, said Dr Steiner: ‘We did a lot of testing on test benches and in cars. No issues at all, even in a GT3 RS on the racetrack. This is really fine.’

The fuel should be suitable for use in any engine currently using fossil fuel, either as eFuel or a blend of fossil and synthetic. But the quantities that will be produced amount to little more than a drop in the ocean: 55 million litres in 2024 and 550 million in 2026.

Steiner said full-electric vehicles remained Porsche’s main focus: ‘By 2030, 80% of all vehicles we sell will be fully electric.’

It will most likely be used first in Porsche Supercup and other race series, and at Porsche Experience Centres. ‘Will we be able to offer it to everyone in the world? No, not in every location.’ And aside from any technical issues, there are many legislative and regulatory challenges lying in wait for anyone thinking this means the internal-combustion engine will still be produced in the 2030s and beyond.

Potentially Porsche eFuel could be sold to Formula 1 as it moves to greener fuel. But Dr Steiner would not comment on whether this meant Porsche would itself be returning to Formula 1.

‘We are really happy that F1 decided to start using eFuel in 2026. This is a huge step in the right direction in getting emissions down, for the whole F1 business, not just on track.’

Porsche invests €1bn in decarbonisation

Porsche used its annual press conference in March 2021 to double down on its commitment to sustainability, while also making clear it believes there’s much more to CO2 reduction than electrification alone. It’s convinced combustion engines running on synthetic fuels also have a role to play, in motorsport, in road cars and in classics, too. 

‘The problem is not the internal combustion engine itself, it’s the fuel you burn,’ explains Dr Michael Steiner, Porsche’s R&D boss. ‘We have to do a lot of work in order to come down on CO2 emissions, definitely, and we are totally committed to this. But the problem is not the engine itself.

‘We would like to show that e-fuels are a feasible technology with certain volumes – there are a lot of questions, and people who are not convinced that this will work. So, we have to show them. The decision is not one to be taken by our side alone, of course, but we will do all we can to see if this is a solution for highly emotional cars, for racing, and also for on road cars. Our job, at least as research and development, is to show what’s technically possible. The next step is to convince people that there might be not the need to ban everything.’

As things stand, the UK government has moved to ban the sale of new cars powered by combustion engines alone from 2030.

Synthetic fuels could yet save the 911

Synthetic fuels are used by engines in the conventional way, creating heat, power and emissions, but their production involves processes that are carbon-neutral or even capable of off-setting the CO2 released during combustion. Audi’s been working on such fuels for a number of years, and Porsche has announced it too is stepping up its R&D spend on the technology. 

CEO Oliver Blume: ‘Our gasoline engines are consistently being developed further. They are becoming more and more efficient with every new generation and we see e-fuels as a way of having an almost neutral type of fuel. Together with our partners, for instance Siemens, we are pushing the industrialisation of e-fuels with an investment of around €20 million in a pilot plant to prepare this technology for the large scale.

‘We think there could be applications for e-fuels in motorsports, in vehicle testing, when first filling our new vehicles, in our plants in Porsche experience centres. With e-fuels, Porsche classic cars and hybrid models could drive in the future almost neutrally, and current sports cars like the 911 that allow for fully electric due to their concepts could drive almost CO2-neutrally in the future thanks to e-fuels.’ 

Blume has previously suggested that the 911 will be the last Porsche to electrify, if at all, given how fundamental the rear-mounted flat-six engine is to the timeless sports car. Might e-fuels ride to the 911’s rescue? 

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By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions

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