Can e-fuels save classic cars?

HIF’s e-fuel in various states of refinement. Porsche

You’ve probably seen the headlines. Ours, even. Stuff like, “Porsche Creates Magic Gasoline From Wind and Water—Saves Both Internal Combustion and The World.”

It sounds promising but also a bit fantastical, like something out of a supermarket tabloid. So, out of curiosity and a bit of skepticism, we recently went with Porsche to Chile to learn how the stuff is made, what it does, and what it won’t do.

E-fuel sounds exciting but, um … what is it?

In an e-nutshell, it’s a synthetic fuel that is carbon neutral, meaning it’s developed with CO2 that has already been released into the atmosphere using renewable energy. In this case, the renewable is wind. There’s a lot of it here in Chile’s Magallanes Region. As our plane bucked and shuddered with turbulence on its descent, I gazed out at an endless array of whitecaps breaking in the ceaseless gale. On the ground, the wind is both strong and seemingly inexorable, shaping most of the larger flora as they grow into swept and crooked exaggerations.

Porsche eFuels south america aerial
Porsche/HIF Haru Oni demonstration plant. Porsche

“It’s not that there’s so much wind, but that it’s so predictable and reliable,” said Marcelo Daller. He manages the facility we’ve come all this way to see, a small plant operated by Highly Innovative Fuels (HIF) Global, which handles the nitty gritty development on this project. Daller’s narration is subtly chopped by the whistling woosh of the facility’s lone wind turbine. He told me there’s no need to build it high, so the blade tips spin just 60 feet from the ground; I caught myself almost ducking as we passed by. HIF estimates 6,000 hours of high-quality wind in the region each year, equating to 70 percent uptime for the turbines.

Those turbines power the entire process, the first step of which is a carbon-dioxide recapture system from Global Thermostats. Think of it as a very, very large air purifier. Fans cycle air through a ceramic honeycomb matrix that—through a variety of processes we’ll just call “chemistry”—separate the CO2 from other molecules. When the final system goes online, HIF expects to scrub 150 kg of CO2 an hour. (At the time of our visit, the system was not yet operational, so for now, the plant sources its renewable “green” carbon dioxide from a brewery.)

At the other end of the facility, 35 percent of the power from that spooky wind turbine is routed to a Siemens electrolyzer that produces 21 kg of green hydrogen per hour through electrolysis. Said hydrogen and CO2 is run through a copper-zinc catalyst to form synthetic methanol that serves as the basis for all the plant’s carbon-neutral hydrocarbon derivatives.

eFuels south america sustainable fuel refinement infographic
Global Thermostat’s CO2 scrubber planned for Haru Oni. Global Thermostat

Methanol—familiar to any drag racer—is then put through ExxonMobil’s proprietary methanol-to-gas (MTG) process to transform the alcohol into gasoline. Or kerosene, or diesel. In fact, HIF claims the process can crank the hydrocarbon chains as high as “C12” and crack them as low as “C5,” for the petrochemical nerds in the audience.

Burning the resulting fuel will still release carbon into the atmosphere, just as with conventional fuels. But whereas the carbon in fossil fuels is “new,” having previously been locked in a hydrocarbon molecule underground, that in e-fuels is recycled, having been pulled from the atmosphere.

Wow, that sounds high-tech.

It really isn’t. We’re basically talking about electrolysis, which was first observed in water in 1789. There have been efforts to make synthetic fuels for many decades. Germany, for instance, figured out how to make aviation fuel from coal during World War II. Not even ExxonMobil’s proprietary methanol-to-gas procedure is new. “That is a mature and venerable technology dating back to the 1970s, an outcome of the OPEC oil embargoes and fuel supply pressures,” explained André Boehman, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan and a leading expert in e-fuels.

Porsche eFuels south america interior
A view from the refinery area, the final stage of the MTG process. Less magic, more unglamorous technology. Porsche/Mark Fagelson

“The concept of a drop-in fuel has been around for decades,” agreed John Voelcker, a journalist who, as the founding editor-in-chief of Green Car Reports, has long focused on the green car space. “If you talk to fleet managers—the old and grizzled ones—they will tell you about the ‘Alt Fuel of the Year Problem.’ Because in my lifetime, we have seen ideas involving ethanol, methanol, natural gas, ethanol again in its E85 form, and now ethanol blended in the feedstock at E10, with E15 on its way, and so on.”

Carbon capture is far newer, but still considered old-hat by modern standards. The concept was first posed in 1938, and a large-scale carbon recapture project launched in 1972, according to Columbia University, when the Sharon Ridge oilfield in Texas injected CO2 into the ground. The technology remained somewhat stagnant through the mid-1990s, until Norway’s Sleipner program went live in the North Sea as the first integrated carbon capture and storage project.

The biggest hurdles for alt-fuels of all varieties have been economic rather than technological: conventional fossil fuels are really profitable, alternative fuels are clearly less so. Lacking a business case or regulatory requirements meant there was no reason to pursue them at large scale. “Many alt-fuels come about from a regulatory push,” explained Voelcker. “It’s fairly rare that there is a demand-pull for alt-fuels from actual consumers.”

eFuels south america HIF
Porsche/Mark Fagelson

Concerns about global warming and widespread pressure to reduce use of fossil fuels obviously changes the calculus, which helps explain why Porsche thought the project was worth an investment of $100M (and growing). Like every major automaker, Porsche has lots of electric vehicles in the pipeline—at least 50 percent of its lineup will be battery EVs or plug-in hybrids by 2025, and it’s aiming for that to grow to 80 percent by 2030. But that still leaves a certain number of dino-burners, which I’m willing to speculate hail from the 911 family, and there might simply be too much brand identity and equity on the line to ditch the gas-powered ass-engines entirely.

What would I need to do to my car to use it?

That’s the beautiful part: Nothing. This e-fuel is a true drop-in replacement, provided the mix is correct.

“Most fuels are not specific molecules and more of a mixture of chemicals that fit a certain specification,” explained Stephen McCord, a research fellow at the University of Michigan’s Global CO2 Initiative. In other words, with the right mixture of molecules and proper era-appropriate additives, e-fuels could run anything from an airliner to a Model T to a 917K or a GT3 RS.

eFuels south america HIF barrell

Porsche let the assembled journalists pour around 12 gallons of this novel fuel into Panameras, then sent us on our way. Porsche swears it levied no changes unto the Panamera’s ECU or fuel system. I immediately noticed…no differences at all. Not once during our roughly 250-mile tour of Patagonia did the Panamera drop power, cut out, stutter, cough, sniff, or sneeze. My driving partner and I broke conversation every hour or so to remind each other we’re driving on a tank filled with wind and water. “Notice anything? No? Alright. Oh hey! An emu!”

This all sounds fantastic. Where can I buy some?

You can’t, and for the foreseeable future you won’t be able to in any real sense. The demo plant’s current production is capped at around 90 gallons a day, most of which is earmarked for use in Porsche’s Supercup racing series and a rotating fleet of internal test vehicles ranging from a 993 to a 991.2.

A large, full-scale production facility is planned roughly 20 miles south, with 60 windmills providing enough energy to produce 17.4 million gallons of e-fuel for use in South American and European markets. Facilities in Australia for Asian distribution and in Houston, Texas, for North America are also in the works. When all three are online and firing at full capacity, HIF expects a supply of 150,000 barrels of e-fuel a day. That sounds like a lot until you look at production figures for conventional oil—nearly 90 million barrels a day even during the pandemic-cramped years of 2020 and 2021. And even that limited supply won’t be offered directly for sale. Aside from the infinitesimal amount being produced at the Porsche-backed demonstration plant, every drop will be unceremoniously poured into the existing pool of consumer gasoline around the world to bring the general carbon footprint down.

Porsche eFuels Conner Golden
Your humble (and extremely jet-lagged) author pumping 40 liters of efuel into a Panamera. Porsche

The main limitation to scaling up is financial. Both Porsche and HIF were mum about the real cost of the e-fuel on the consumer side, but they readily admit it would need government subsidies to be competitive. “We can adjust tax politics to make e-fuels cheaper…politics should support investments to make prices more attractive,” Porsche CEO Oliver Blume recently told Reuters.

There are also technical and logistical hurdles. “Arguably the biggest challenge when it comes to scale-up (for all e-fuels, e-chemicals etc.) is hydrogen provision,” said McCord, the University of Michigan researcher. “Simply put, electrolyzers are relatively ‘small’ when compared to the volumes of fuel (therefore H2) we need.” He adds that hydrogen electrolysis is energy intensive; without an affordable renewable form of electricity, producing significant amounts of it for e-fuel would become prohibitively expensive.

Then there’s the fact that e-fuels already have major competition. Comparisons of e-fuel to electric vehicles are largely theoretical at this moment, since neither is close to the scale of fossil fuels, but electric vehicles do enjoy inherent advantages. In particular, using electrons to power vehicles directly is far more efficient than deploying those same electrons to convert CO2 into e-fuels. “Driving solely on e-fuels would require six times more electricity than using BEVs,” stated a 2021 white paper from the International Council on Clean Transportation. In practical terms, that means e-fuels will require vastly more land (and money) for windmills, solar panels, and other forms of renewable energy.

Porsche eFuels Panamera HIF plant e-fuel

That said, e-fuels have important advantages of their own: They are easier to deliver, given that there’s already a vast network for gasoline, and they could render the billions of cars already on the road more environmentally friendly. Those vehicles, just like when they’re powered by conventional gasoline, would generally be able to travel further and refuel faster than today’s electric vehicles. And if e-fuels present issues at scale, so do EVs. McCord specifically pointed to their reliance on certain metals, like nickel and cobalt, although he noted there has been some progress in this area.

Of course, there’s also politics and perception: Many governments have already weighed in on this discussion with bans on ICE vehicles and incentives for EVs, and a growing segment of the general public sees them as an attractive solution. “The ideal alt-fuel would be one that has regulatory push and consumer pull, and we see that with EVs,” said Voelcker. “Large numbers of people like EVs, they like the idea of fueling at home, they like the idea of instant torque, etc.”

The politics aren’t set in stone—Germany, for instance, has recently lobbied for the European Union’s 2035 ban on the sale carbon-emitting vehicles to make allowances for ICE vehicles powered by e-fuels. Yet for automakers making bets now on where to put their R&D dollars, EVs clearly have an edge.

Porsche eFuels south america windmill e-fuel

So, how excited should we be?

We’d still say, “very.” Given all the challenges, it seems unlikely (albeit not impossible) that e-fuels will become a dominant, mainstream source of power for personal transportation. Yet they still have huge promise. McCord noted that they could be a potential solution for sectors where there isn’t yet a viable fossil fuel alternative, such as aviation. And a number of full-size tanker ships can run on e-methanol, eliminating some of our naval reliance on bunker fuel—nasty, sulfurous stuff that has been found to be particularly harmful to people who live along shipping channels.

Most of the independent experts we spoke to describe the relationship between e-fuels, EVs, and other green energy sources not as zero-sum but collaborative—using each where it makes sense in the overall fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“My personal opinion is that we need all three—battery electric vehicles, biofuels [such as ethanol] and e-fuel to displace petroleum fully,” said Boehman, the University of Michigan engineering professor. “Dropping in things that look like today’s fuels and electrifying where that makes sense (passenger cars, short haul trucking), we can get there.”

Of course, we’re most excited for our old cars. At best, e-fuel might extend the lifeline of the production ICE. At worst, it will freeze it in amber. Taking a thousand-foot view of e-fuels blots out most of the downsides and uncertainty; since there is no noticeable difference in how a vehicle runs on this e-fuel, it means all ICE cars face meaningful and active preservation in an electric future.

Porsche eFuels south america Panamera e-fuel


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    This is too complicated. Use the unreliable electricity from wind and solar to make hydrogen whenever that electricity is available. Storage tanks, transport and vehicle tanks are already developed. Electricity storage is not. It is always promised “a battery breakthrough is coming, soon!”

    Just alot of time and effort trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Çlimate change is nonsense and we will never run out of oil. The earth is producing oil as we speak. This is how it works. Organic matter sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The weight and pressure of the water compress it and the heat of the earth’s core turn it into oil. Hydraulic pressure pushes it back up through the cracks in the earth’s crust. The term fossil fuels is a lie. Not one drop of oil ever came from a fossil. You’re welcome.

    Your theory (and it is indeed a theory) is one I have heard before, referring to what I believe is commonly called “abiotic oil”. While many believe that it is possible for oil to form that way, from what I have read recently, nothing has yet proven that theory, or disproven the fossil theory.

    As for climate change, it is not nonsense; the real question is how much is mankind contributing to it, and what, realistically and practically, can we do about our contribution – if anything.

    Great article. Interesting to think about the UofM professor’s thought that it will take a combination of alternatives to displace petroleum. If that’s the route we’re going, it’s encouraging to think there may be a clean solution to keeping the ICE cars we love on the road for decades to come.

    When you stop listening to professors who have spent their life in a classroom and start listening to people who have real life experiences the better off you will be.

    You can make Big horsepower on methanol. Just ask the No Prep Kings boys.😂. However, one of the issues for the racers using methanol is corrosion. Apparently the stuff goes after aluminum in a big way, so racers flush the entire fuel system with gasoline after the are done racing.

    Richard Phillips Feynman was an American physicist known for the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the super fluidity of super cooled liquid helium, as well as work in particle physics (he proposed the Parton model). For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman was a joint recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. Feynman became one of the most publicly known scientists in the world.

    This is absolute nonsense. Technically doable? Yes. But of no practical value whatsoever. I’m so sick of these kinds of stories that have only one real purpose – to delude people into thinking that there is a solution to global warming that will allow “sustainable development” to continue forever. Mankind has been practicing “sustainable development” for at least 50 years now, and look where we’re at.

    Ever read the mission statement of the Paris Climate Accord? Think it’s mission is to stop global warming? Hardly. Its mission is to slow warming to a manageable level so that sustainable development can continue indefinitely. They don’t give a darn about global warming. What they’re worried about is sustaining never-ending growth for the purpose of global corporate profit growth. Don’t believe me? Go to the UN web site and read it.

    If they’re really worried about carbon emissions, why is it that no one ever utters a peep in protest of the 5 billion barrels of oil that are burned every year by cargo ships carrying manufactured products halfway around the world, products that could just as easily be manufactured locally? Is it possible that the real reason that sea levels are rising is that the water is being displaced by all of the trash that’s accumulating in the oceans? Is it possible that temperatures are rising not so much because of CO2 in the atmosphere but because of the heat-island effect of big cities – heat-islands that grow bigger and more numerous around the world as the population continues to explode?

    Why does no one question why carbon emissions are destroying the environment now, with cars averaging 30 mpg, but it wasn’t even an issue in the 1950s when they averaged about 10 mpg?

    EVs? A couple of days ago, Reuters ran a story about how EVs that have been damaged in collisions are piling up in warehouses because they can’t be repaired. The promised battery recycling systems don’t exist. Some EVs, like the Tesla Model Y, have to be totaled if the battery has even a scratch on it, because the battery is a structural component. Insurers are beginning to wise up to the true cost of insuring these things, and owners are beginning to wise up as well. (My son could tell you a horror story about his Tesla that was recently damaged in a minor collision.)

    Just today, another story appeared about the lagging installation of super-charging stations, because new federal regs require they be made in the U.S. in order to qualify for federal grant money and, aside from Tesla, nobody has any capacity to make them. They don’t even know how.

    For all of its talk about EVs, GM doesn’t even know how to make a battery. They still have to rely on South Korean technology. Even the new battery plants they’re building in the U.S. will be owned and operated by South Korea.

    EV buyers are being suckered, and they’re not going to be happy when it finally dawns on them.

    The story that’s the subject of this article reminds me of another one that pops up every few years – that scientists are getting closer to harnessing fusion energy. I’ve been hearing that one for most of my 73 years. A few years ago there was the story about “cold fusion.” The media got all excited while nuclear physicists were probably splitting their guts laughing. Doesn’t matter. It had the desired effect of assuaging fears about what could happen if we start running short on oil as we double the population again.

    Every kid who’s ever had an aquarium understands that that finite little ecosystem can only support so many guppies before they all go belly up. That is, they understand it until they grow up and attend an economics class where they’re taught that mankind is clever enough to overcome all obstacles to growth, based on nothing more than the fact that it was true up until recently. Those same economists, when they draft a prospectus for an investment fund, are at least smart enough to warn that “past performance is no guarantee of future returns.” But I guess that doesn’t apply to “sustainable development.” (That’s an oxymoron, by the way.)

    Hagerty, if you’re really interested in protecting the classic car hobby from the EV / green energy / global warming ruse, then stop running these kinds of stories and start calling them out for what they really are. Give readers the chance to ponder what the real problem is and what might be real solutions.

    The auto industry has come a long way in the last 50 years or so in decreasing pollution from cars and trucks. It is possible that more can be done. The “Developing nations” as China and India as they are called need to be held accountable for their pollution of greenhouse gasses instead of being given a free pass. There is so little pollution from our modern vehicles that the need for EV are not needed. Our country no matter what it does to improve emissions cannot do enough to clean up the whole world. There are so many countries pumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere that our efforts will be minimized in the scope of things. This country cannot pay for the world to clean up. We cant get rid of fossil fuels anyway because we haven’t developed an E powered airplane ships nor a long distance EV truck. The next pollution disaster will be the disposal of trillions of lithium batteries. I know that Elon is working on a recycling factory but he cant recycle for the world.

    I think someone spent a lot of time coming up with a great April fools day joke and it got published a week early.
    They are turning CO2 into fuel that when it burns it creates CO2, so are they claiming to be approaching perpetual motion here? Interestingly not mentioned. Oh, and the plant was not operational yet. Convenient. Looks like they rounded up all the media to show them what they want them to see….or did they?

    Sun and wind are unlimited sources of energy and relatively cheap to harvest for fuel production of any sort.
    The economy of scale will continue to bring prices down but being more careful with any natural resources can only be beneficial.

    Unlimited? Really? That’s a lot. I’ve never seen that study. With no effect on climate? Please explain because I think that statement defies logic.

    The problem is that fossil fuel of from any kind, causes greenhouse gasses, that cause Climate Change! Depending on one’s pollical believe, ‘it’s a hoax from fake news!’, or trust the scientist, that I believe is true, note the crazy weather we are having, too many ones in a century storm in many parts of the country, except here on the Long Island having mild weather this year. We lucked out for now!
    There’s been an agreement to end production of ICE vehicles by 2035, by the EU and automotive companies, but there’s some pushback of this agreement for a number reason’s.
    The introduction of e-fuel a carbon free synthetic fuel like synthetic motor oil we have now, as a way to allow to ICE to be use to avoid EV vehicles as the only type to made by 2035.
    But they are manufactured products that has a cost to produce!
    EV’s are simpler to make, no many motor parts to be made, no transmission, no radiators, no exhaust system with catalyst converter, no fuel tanks, etc., just simple one or two electric motors, with differentials. that should be much cheaper to builds!
    However main reason is why EVs are expensive is the battery technology as of now. Over time new ways to make batteries cheaper without the expensive material in the make of the batteries, like doing away with lithium, rear earth, others to make it to have an EV that will be affordable with a 500 miles driving, and faster charging capability.
    Present fuel cost are now in the $3+ range, it will not go down to below a dollar a gallon like it used to be decades ago! If you know your vehicle’s fuel consumption X time to travel to use the gallon of gas, way less than an hour, with EV it charge by kw/H at going rate in your home in cents! An hour of driving in cents!

    Want to solve climate change? Turn off half the lights in the cities around the world at night. Why dose every building in every city have to lit up like a Christmas tree?

    Pretty discouraging how some people can not accept anything other than crude pumped from the ground even though there’s an alternative on the horizon that could run their “ass-engine” just as well.

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