In March 2023, European Union countries approved a landmark law to end sales of CO2-emitting cars by 2035. This approval came after last-minute opposition from Germany, which argued that sales of new cars with internal combustion engines (ICEs) should be allowed, provided that these cars run on e-fuels.
E-fuels are being touted as a viable alternative to electric vehicles. But just what are e-fuels, and are they as promising as their advocates contend?
What are e-fuels?
E-fuels are synthetic alternatives to fossil fuels. They are comprised of CO2 emissions that have been captured from the environment, and hydrogen that has been produced by renewable or CO2-free electricity.
E-fuels are therefore carbon neutral. They still release CO2, but the amount released is exactly equal to the atmospheric CO2 that was captured for the e-fuels’ synthesis.
However, whilst e-fuels have been touted by some, there are problems with this model.
Firstly, an e-fuel can only be considered an e-fuel if the hydrogen used in its synthesis is produced with renewable or CO2-free energy. Secondly, every stage in the creation of e-fuels wastes energy, requiring around five times more renewable electricity than that needed to run an electric vehicle. Thirdly, e-fuels are currently not produced at scale, which contributes to their extreme expense. Fourth, whilst e-fuels are carbon neutral, they still release the toxic by-products involved in fossil fuel usage, which include toxic nitrogen dioxide and carcinogens.
It remains an open question whether e-fuels will develop as a viable alternative to fossil fuels for the automobile industry.
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