Inside the plot to save gas guzzlers from the net zero scrap heap
The European Union’s decision to allow German and Italian car makers to carry on making combustion engines after 2035 has raised hopes that sports cars could be saved from the net zero scrap heap.
European manufacturers will now still be allowed to manufacture cars that use so-called e-fuels, which are a greener alternative to petrol and diesel.
The decision raised hopes that the UK might follow suit.
For now, the Government’s policy is unchanged: there was no provision for synthetic petrol or diesel in the banner announcement on Britain's push to net zero released on Thursday.
However, industry insiders remain hopeful. Many in the car sector argue that e-fuels will have an important role to play in making the car industry cleaner.
E-fuels, or synthetic fuels, mimic petrol, diesel and other fossil fuels as they are made with the same combination of hydrogen and carbon atoms.
However, rather than being dug from the ground, refined and burnt, they are made from water and air using green electricity.
The process is convoluted, meaning mile for mile it will probably always be more expensive to make synthetic petrol rather than to use green electricity to charge a battery.
However, these fuels raise the prospect that classic cars and other older models could continue to run even after new combustion engines stop rolling off manufacturing lines.
The EU decision has also reinvigorated the debate over how to quickly clean up the car industry.
Is it greener to take the world’s billions of refined oil-burning cars and run them on carbon neutral fuel rather than wait for battery cars to slowly replace them?
Or is this just a sneaky way for the oil industry to extend its life, maintaining a century-old engine design that is responsible for more ills than merely carbon dioxide?
Andy Palmer, the former boss of Aston Martin, says e-fuels also have a role to play in making the car industry greener.
Electric car adoption is limited by the availability of lithium and other minerals that are crucial to battery production.
E-fuels offer a useful bridge while the industry seeks to ramp up battery supply.
However, Dr Palmer says they should be used sparingly because hot combustion engines still produce harmful gases like nitrous oxide and particulates, which harm the lungs.
If synthetic fuels become too cheap they will dominate the market and slow down electric adoption, ruining the government’s targets and the move to cleaner cars.
Dr Palmer, a former Nissan chief, was a pioneer of battery cars as the architect of the electric Nissan Leaf’s success.
He says: “What you can't allow to happen is this suddenly becomes a panacea solution to meeting net zero and demolishing the move to electric vehicles. That's what you have to be really, really careful about.”
If e-fuels are plentiful, “why would you move to electric?,” he says.
“What happens then is you may solve the net zero, but what you don't do is you don't solve the air cleanliness, particulates in urban environments.”
Sam Akehurst, research director at the Institute of Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems and a professor at the University of Bath, said the industry expects that synthetic petrol can be made at scale for about £2 a litre before tax.
The cost of petrol before tax and distribution is about 62 pence today. Duty, VAT, and to a lesser extent delivery and the retailer’s margin take it to £1.46 per litre.
The price is rapidly decreasing but the difference in consumption is huge, with most synthetic fuels being made in small, experimental batches.
Porsche, which wants to maintain the feel and noise of its classic 911, has spent $75m on a stake in a test e-fuel refinery.
But its pilot plant in Chile makes only 130,000 litres per year, compared to the hundreds of millions of litres of petrol used per day around the globe.
E-fuels edge could be in practicality rather than price and efficiency, said Mr Akehurst. Electric power from wind is hard to store. On windy days, excess power could be used to make these new fuels.
To make synthetic petrol, you need sources of carbon and hydrogen.
Splitting water molecules to get hydrogen is a well-understood process. But to be truly green, the carbon must come from the air through direct air capture. This is a newer technology which is currently comparatively expensive.
Using this method, carbon is taken from the air and then put back when the e-fuel is burnt. It means the process is carbon-neutral but with the smell, noise and emissions of petrol.
Porsche says the e-fuel it is making releases 90pc less CO2 than petrol.
E-fuels can be made to mimic petrol, but they can also be made with a very different chemical composition. This could be a way to ensure post-2035 combustion engine cars can’t use old petrol, which is a concern for environmental campaigners.
This could be a boon to the cars as well, since a fuel which burns better could be chosen for better performance.
Ferrari has welcomed the EU’s decision on e-fuels after wrestling with the problem of how to make its sports cars sound good and remain desirable in a net zero age.
Sports car makers have been grappling with the loss of excitement a driver feels from a noisy petrol engine, which requires skill to operate and the control that gears provide.
For British politicians, the EU’s decision presents a challenge as they could end up being led by the nose in copying the move, says Ian Plummer, commercial director of marketplace Auto Trader.
The move to electric is a simple plan, while throwing e-fuel into the mix could slow it down.
He says: “There are still practical barriers to widespread adoption of EVs, but if the UK followed the Commission’s lead and allowed internal combustion engines burning e-fuels to stay on the road, this would risk de-stabilising progress with the charging network investment and installation, as well as harming consumer confidence.
“Manufacturers have also invested fortunes in developing EVs. We badly need clarity in this area.”
Ralf Diemer, managing director of industry body the E-fuel Alliance, says they are no threat to electrification: “Car manufacturers are committed to an electric strategy.
“The electrification of transport is fundamental to our climate goals, as is the market ramp-up of e-fuels. The technologies are complementary, not contradictory.”
For Professor Akehurst, it is a welcome extra option in slashing carbon.
“We need to pull as many levers as we can now to take carbon out of our energy supply system and I think e-fuels can be part of that, and at least a technology that we should try and pursue.”