What is E-Fuel and Can it Save the Internal Combustion Engine?

Political beliefs aside, we are pretty sick of our mindless politicians mandating stupid green policies without any thought of their economic impact and how to successfully implement them.  Take for instance California’s declaration that all new cars shall be electric by 2035.  It is one thing to mandate this but how can this be done?  California’s grid and power generation infrastructure are already strained to the limit.  In typical political knee-jerk action, implemented by those who are unqualified to make this sort of mandate, we do not see any plans to develop an electric car charging infrastructure nor any plans to fortify the grid for this demand that will probably quadruple the need for electric power.  Also, it takes energy to make electric power, usually causing the creation of more greenhouse gases, making the use of electricity is, for the most part, not carbon neutral.  The amount of sustainable power via solar, wind, and hydroelectric generation is too limited and not reliable enough to meet the huge increase in demand that switching to an all-electric transportation fleet will create.  Also, there is a lot of current investment in the fuel infrastructure not to mention millions of internal combustion engine vehicles that cannot go away for a generation or more.

Even if you want to punch Greta Thornburg in the face and are not signed up to the belief that human activities are causing global warming,  you got to admit that it is probably not a good idea to greatly change the balance of our air.  The big question is how do we convert over to a more carbon-neutral way of powering our cars and heating our homes that is not disruptive to our economy and way of life?

The interim answer to the problem might just be a new technology that is being worked on now called E-Fuel. E-Fuel is a too good to be a true-sounding answer to the problem that takes hydrogen from water and CO2 from the atmosphere to create a wide range of hydrocarbon products from natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel, and even plastics.  With the E-Fuel process, not only are we getting fuel but also removing carbon from the atmosphere and not creating any more carbon when using it.  Some people have difficulty wrapping their heads around making gasoline out of air and water but let me explain, gas is a hydrocarbon, made up of chains of hydrogen and carbon atoms.  The process is getting the hydrogen and carbon out of the air and water and putting it back together in the form of stuff we can use.

To make E-Fuel you need to use a 4-step process that hinges on getting green electricity, this will come from solar, wind, or hydroelectric power.

The first step is to use your green electric power to use electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.  The oxygen can be used for many commercial purposes and the hydrogen now called green hydrogen and atmospheric CO2 are fed into a catalytic reactor whose output is hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and water. The water can be reused in the process and the hydrogen and carbon monoxide are fed into another catalytic reactor that forms those two constituents to make what is called blue crude as well as methane gas.

The methane gas can be used in homes as a replacement for natural gas and Audi even has research going to run cars on methane.  The final step is also known as Fischer–Tropsch process which was first developed in 1925 by German chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch.  This process is well understood by us and is already scalable for production-level outputs.  In fact, during WW2 it helped fuel the Nazi regime after their supply of petroleum fuel was cut off.

Now if this sounds too good to be true, it kinda is, it’s like putting the manure back in the horse so to speak. Its success as a green process requires a huge amount of clean electric energy that in itself requires its own infrastructure.   It is much more efficient to use that green-generated electricity to directly charge electric cars as you can see in the graphic above.  It is also more efficient to use green hydrogen in hydrogen-powered cars, hence Toyota and Mazda’s ongoing research on that.  The only advantage of E-fuel is it can give us a carbon-neutral way for us to enjoy our cars, giving us more flexibility in the transition to a more sustainable way of personal transportation.  This is actually a big deal!

9 comments

  1. Obviously commenting on this is going to be a minefield. 😉

    Let’s say, I agree with most of the basic premise of this – well I’ve always been really in favor of nuclear power as bluntly, the FUD over it is absurd. And I’ve long been arguing in favor of transitional energy transport methods. Liquid fuels are really really convenient and so much of the US power grid… well ask Texans for example how well it would handle something like “everyone has an EV”. And I think you and I can both envision ways of massively increasing average fuel efficiency for most people’s car needs.

    I don’t know how we get from here to there though; economics means that, especially with subsidies for petroleum extraction companies, it’s going to stay massively more cost effective to keep pumping crude out of the ground with all the repercussions that entails, and the current state of the PR on all of this is what it is.

  2. I made rough calculations for Germany and came to need of doubling their electric generation to fuel personal mobility. Also cars are mostly charged at night at home, so all this amount need to be generated without sun, or somewhere stored.

    Then we came to the next problem: let’s imagine village with 500 houses and 500 daily driven cars. Every car needs at least 15kw of power, also in winter you need electricity for heating (remember, we are refusing fossil fuels) and also for another consumers. So generally you need to handle the situation when your household peak consumption raises from 4-8kw to somewhere near 40-50kw. So you need to fully rework ALL electricity delivery network.

    Then the third problem with no solution in nearest future: weight of BEV. For consumer cars like Leaf or id3 it’s not a big deal, but weight of fuel is a problem for delivery and absolute catastrophe for aviation and shipping. And also for performance vehicles, but when I look at modern German, let’s name them cars (not elephants), I came to opinion that nobody cares.

    The forth problem is raise of vehicles production and maintaining complexity. You can’t just bore out your battery and install new pistons to fully restore battery condition. You need to recycle used one and get new for enormous amount of money and work. Also instead of carburetors that can be casted in garage you need complex chips and boards. I’am oversimplifying, but I guess you all remember: no replacement for displacement, you either get cheap, reliable and simple big engine or have a lot of problems to solve.

    And now let’s look what Power-to-Liquid fuels gives you: simple engines, simple power storage, simple power transportation, no problems with planes and ships and transportations.

    Nuclear energy is the cleanest way to get electricity. Furthermore it’s the cheapest way to get a large amount of energy and is the most controllable in terms of power regulation – you can generate most of electricity at night or whenever you want with near to zero carbon footprint.

    Also let’s imagine new raise of old good big OHV v8s. Simple reliable construction, rebuildability that will allow you to use your cars for decades and nobody will tell you, that your old delivery-truck is no more eligible to enter city because of emissions.

    Yeah, and of course car enthusiast will be happy)))

    1. I very much agree with Jay Leno talking about self driving cars taking over and our archaic HC burners following the fate of the horse. Used for pleasure now, no longer pulling the plough. Certain times, certain roads, certain people.
      Solid state batteries, while nascent, is the current holy grail. These will allow deep and safe storage of electricity generated when possible to be utilized when needed. Charged during the day, discharged at night topping up a car when needed.
      Nuclear power will remain dirty, no matter how it’s marketed. It can be cleaner, but this is like clean coal or filtered cigarettes. Fusion changes the storyline here, no? Let’s hope this is realized sooner rather than later.
      I’m so excited for this change yet remain fully devoted to all of the wonderfully horrible nuances of the internal combustion engine.

      1. 4th gen nukes are an order of magnitude more efficient, cleaner, and safer than current reactors. If the carbon in the air really is a serious problem, this is about the only way to stop its rise with our current technology.

  3. I enjoyed this. I can no longer drive down a highway in an old RX-7 burning C16. The fuel transition, it’s happening and we’ll find a way to make it commercially viable. The grid derailments are a moot point. Home charging, localized DC grids will resolve much of this. Think freedom gardens in WW2. We have an abundance of free energy here. It’s why our planet is so hot! Converting that into tangible energy will fix nearly all of our problems while hopefully salvaging a lot of the environment that our fun pastime has contributed to changing.

  4. So they’re kicking around the idea of running cars on methane. What comes out of the tailpipe? Because unburned methane is supposedly much worse for the atmosphere short term than CO2.

  5. Since when is CO2 a pollutant? CO is, but CO2 is essential for plants (vegetation) to thrive. Remember photosynthesis in 3rd grade? CO2 + water+ sunlight and all that? BTW, the main products of combustion are CO2 and water (and nitrogen, which is just along for the ride and in the way for the most part)…. literally plant food. I believe our politicians have conveniently taken the problems associated with carbon monoxide (CO, produced in trace amounts in ICE exhaust) and adhered them to carbon dioxide (CO2, a main product in ICE exhaust) in order to inflate doomsday hysteria. Conveniently just lump it all together as “carbon”. Even so, it would be really cool if we came up with a machine that converted CO2 into oxygen… oh, wait… that’s a tree. Vegetation are literally carbon scrubbers. The biggest problem with this is politicians don’t gain hysterical followers or profit from trees.

    1. It doesn’t help that our rainforests are getting cut down quickly. Another solution is to pay tropical 3rd world countries to preserve and restore their rainforests.

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