Porsche and Siemens Energy have jointly opened a production plant for CO2-neutral vehicle fuel (eFuel). This could once again shake up the debate about climate-friendly mobility.
The battery drive is regarded as the royal road to climate-friendly mobility; at best, the fuel cell could hold a candle to it. But the installed base of combustion vehicles – around 1.4 billion cars and commercial vehicles worldwide – would continue to weigh on the environmental balance sheet of the transport sector. With e-fuels, that could change.
The pilot plant funded by Porsche and built by Siemens in Haru Oni, Patagonia, has now begun producing e-fuels – which are materials that are chemically largely identical to normal gasoline or diesel fuel. Unlike fossil fuels, however, the CO2 that the engine emits during combustion is first removed from the atmosphere. The fuel is synthesized from water, the CO2 taken from the atmosphere, and wind energy. This results in a neutral CO2 balance overall – at least as long as the electrical energy required for production comes exclusively from renewable sources.
In any case, Siemens and Porsche regard the start of production in Chile as a “decisive building block for the decarbonization of the transport sector,” the two companies said in a press release. This applies above all to those areas that cannot be electrified or can only be electrified with difficulty, such as shipping and air traffic – but also to the vehicles with internal combustion engines that are still in use.
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The plant in Chile will initially produce a relatively modest 130,000 liters of fuel per year, but Siemens and Porsche see it as a lighthouse project that should scale up quickly: Starting in 2025, that volume is expected to rise to 55 million liters, and as much as 550 million liters by 2027. With this technology, the two companies say, fuel factories could be built at sunny or windy locations around the world that work on the same principle. Porsche is holding out the prospect of a price of “less than 2 euros per liter” – which would be only slightly more than the current price level in Central Europe. Observers are euphoric – the technology could usher in a new energy age in which the world is no longer dependent on the few countries with large oil or gas reserves, writes the German business paper Wirtschaftswoche.
Weak point: Efficiency is way below par
Critics do point to the high amount of energy required to generate e-fuels – it is around five times higher than for operating battery-powered vehicles. But this efficiency advantage is no longer a limiting factor or even relevant if the electrical energy is generated in locations where there is a constant surplus of wind or sun. And what’s more, this technology could alleviate the existing dependence of European and American vehicle manufacturers on batteries or battery materials from China.
The challenge in the project is that the process steps, which had previously only been tested individually, had to be integrated and coordinated in an industrial generation chain for the first time in order to make production efficient and trouble-free.
And the auto industry? Will it now continue to promote the combustion engine drive because of the new perspective, will it possibly start new development projects for combustion engines and pursue the development of electric vehicles with less vigor?
That’s not likely – the course has been set in the industry, and acceptance of e-cars is also growing steadily among buyers. But think about the 1.4 billion internal combustion vehicles that are already driving around somewhere on this planet and will continue to pollute the environment for decades: For them, there is hope for the first time that their carbon footprint can also still be improved.