E-Fuels?

By 2020, the EU requires 10% of road transport energy to be generated from renewable sources. As electric cars are still in their infancy, this goal must be achieved through alternative fuel solutions for existing road vehicles. Several countries have approached this by introducing the use of E-Fuels, a mixture of petrol and bioethanol. Although this meets the regulations, reduced fuel economy, increased food prices and deforestation are significant concerns. Is introducing E-Fuels actually beneficial, or just to meet regulations?

E-Fuels – For

It is the simple truth that our society cannot continue our reliance on fossil fuels indefinitely. At current rates of consumption, we are likely to exhaust oil reserves in as little as 40 years. A dependence on imported fuels has in recent years led to massive price fluctuations impacting UK drivers. Therefore, anything we can do to reduce a reliance on fossil fuels is a positive change.

Biofuels are a key development in the transition away from fossil fuels towards sustainable fuel alternatives. Ethanol fuel mixtures are an easy and sustainable way of prolonging the limited oil supplies. The burn process is much cleaner than conventional fuels, leading to lower harmful emissions, such as particulates and toxic gasses, per unit of fuel. The Australian Medical Association states “There is incontrovertible evidence that the addition of ethanol to petrol and biodiesel to diesel will reduce the deaths and ill-health associated with the emissions produced by burning those fuels”.

The carbon dioxide released during combustion is offset by the amount captured during crop growth. According to the US Department of Energy, this leads to a 52% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline production and use.

Currently there are very high ethanol blends, such as E85 (up to 85% Ethanol), being used in high performance vehicles, due to its higher octane levels. In the future, engines designed to take further advantage of this could yield greater benefits for everyday motorists. Although this is not feasible with current technologies, adoption of E-fuels into consumer markets would drive investment into research of more sustainable fuel options.

Are you going to need to buy a new car to run these fuels? Most have nothing to fear, 10% Ethanol fuel (E10) can already be used in 93.91% of cars in the UK. Not only do these fuels burn cleaner in your current car, but evidence shows ethanol mixtures can reduce carbon deposit build-up throughout the engine, keeping your engine cleaner and optimising performance.

How easily could this be implemented? Everything the UK needs is already in place; In fact, every time you go to the pump you are already filling up with anything up to 5% ethanol mixture, without even realising it. Industrial bioethanol is also widely used in products such as aerosol sprays and pharmaceutical products, and the pumps we use at the moment could handle higher concentrations without modification. With no infrastructure investment required, there are negligible costs to pass on to the taxpayer, and the consumer would see lower fuel costs overall. Producing fuel from crops in the UK and reducing importation of fuel would create growth in the British agricultural sector, improve fuel security and benefit the British economy.

E-fuels could very well represent the future of a renewable automotive industry.

E-Fuels – Against

National governments promote the use of ethanol fuel mixtures as a way of meeting mandatory targets for reduction of emissions, while decreasing their economic dependency on foreign oils by substituting it partly by ethanol.

This has an effect on car users, as not all cars are adapted to high ethanol rates in the fuel. If this were to be enforced, many drivers would be forced to upgrade to new cars which may be financially unviable for a large amount of people. Ethanol fuel mixtures are also less efficient than normal fuel, as the energy content of ethanol is about 33% lower, which leads to a higher fuel consumption. This again compensates the positive environmental impacts as the production of ethanol produces as much greenhouse gases as is saved by avoiding fossil fuels.

Additionally the production of ethanol increases the demand for land that would previously have been used for growing food. This may force countries to import food which disrupts the world market. This in turn pushes up prices for livestock feed and also leads to increasing corn market prices. As a result people in developing countries might suffer from not being able to afford this additional cost.

Even if plants for bioethanol can be grown in a sustainable way, the lack of food sources might lead indirectly to legal or illegal deforestation through third parties to solve these problems. This may have the result that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels instead increase.

Future efforts could focus on the usage of residues from food production for bioethanol instead of growing corn specifically for the production of ethanol. Focusing on methods combining food production with the reprocessing of the associated waste could avoid the risk of food and “fuel” plants competing against each other.

It would also make sense to adapt emissions regulations to focus on the volume of automotive vehicle traffic. This might include stricter restrictions on the fuel consumption of newly developed cars. This would be a more direct method of reducing carbon dioxide emissions than finding ways to marginally reduce the damage of our existing practices.

Research into sustainable energy sources would have wide reaching benefits for the rest of society as the topic of fossil fuels permeates the majority of human endeavours. This would be preferable to a continued dependency on fuels which compete with the production of food.

Lastly, governments could also support research and development of more sustainable energy sources such as micro-algaes which avoid competition with food production whilst having the potential to better meet sustainability targets.

Taking these arguments into consideration, we believe that it is necessary to revise current international regulations to provide a more holistic framework through which countries can effectively reduce their emissions in the long term.

39: James Leete, David Atherton, Hugh Wessel, Juliane Tröndle

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7 thoughts on “E-Fuels?

  1. Really interesting read covering some great points! I didn’t realise bio-fuels could already be used in a majority of existing cars on the road.

    It seems the against argument focuses on an immediately implemented change. I feel like if bio-fuels were to become mandatory, it would be a very gradual exchange which requires a lot of development before its fully implemented. This would give car owners who may not be able to afford a new car plenty of time to adapt, during which they probably would’ve bought a new car anyway. If it is a scheme which the government implements, I am also sure that they would provide significant incentive and possibly financial support for those willing to make the change.

    Also, I feel the point about the bio-fuel plant market competing with the edible plant market was a bit weak. Food is already imported and this doesn’t currently disrupt the balance of the world market, so why would it in the future? It might even be beneficial as countries developing these technologies would have a new source of income.

    Still, some very interesting points. Thanks to the authors for a great read 🙂

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  2. Good read, providing lots of interesting thoughts on a topic that personally I hadn’t known too much about.

    Whilst reading the ‘for’ section it seemed quite clear that the topic of fuel efficiency was being avoided, which weakened the arguments for me as I felt myself wanting to know the quantifiable difference in emissions over a set distance rather than per unit of fuel. I think it would have been a good idea to acknowledge this disadvantage and explain whether ethanol in fuel still has a net benefit to society. The ‘against’arguments did address the fuel consumption of ethanol being higher than traditional automotive fuels as well as the greenhouse gas emissions that occur from the fuel production, though I would be interested to see a side by side comparison of the emissions in ethanol production and those from conventional fuel production.

    The final words mentioning possible alternatives to E-fuels was particularly interesting and would be good to explore a bit further, though I know word limits probably made that impossible.

    Overall I find myself siding more with the argument that e-fuels are of limited benefit, perhaps providing a stop gap until a more sustainable solution has been uncovered.

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  3. This was a good read, but I find myself disagreeing with the statement that this goal can’t be achieved by electric cars.

    Looking at Norway as an example, as of December 2015 3% of all cars are electric up from 2% in march of the same year. Almost a quarter of all their new car ls registered are electric due to government incentives making electric car pricing competitive with internal combustion engine cars. I see no reason why similar incentives wouldn’t work here.

    It’s interesting that such a high percentage of cars can already run biofuels, but if the against argument is correct in stating that not all cars will run it efficiently (the sorce link sends me to a 404 page so i can’t check) then surely the more percentage that matters is the percentage of cars that will see an net emissions decrease from switching to biofuels.

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  4. Excellent read, some very interesting points.

    I’m interested in other methods of reducing oil consumption and how these compare to the use of E-fuels. I’d like to quantify the issue regarding the costings involved as well as the land usage. Although these issues were raised I’d be interested to find out these impacts compared to other options regarding saving fuel. In terms of the usage of E-fuels, I wonder how the environmental impact (be that positive or negative) would be effected depending on the percentage used in automobiles. Additionally, I’m intrigued to know if E-fuels could be used in other things besides automobiles.

    Some rather small points but things I considered whilst reading the article.

    Thank you authors!

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  5. Fun article to read with lot’s of information I was not familiar with.

    However I was struggeling with your hypothesis that e-cars cannot be the solution to meet the EU regulation. Even if e-cars will not hit 10% market share by 2020, they can still be part of the increase of renewable energy sources used for road transportation. It’s not either 10% e-cars or 10 biofuel. Why not combine the 5% biofuel – which is already out there with 5% e-cars? This would sum up to 10% and therefore meet the EU requirements and make 10% biofuel redundant.

    Now the question is how likely it is that e-cars hit 5% marketshare. Looking at the numbers one must admit that it didn’t look promising a year ago. In 2013 e-cars were at 0.49% and 2014 at 0.66%. In 2015 though there was a big leap up to 1.41% which is a plus of 0.75%. Bearing in mind that e-cars still lack competivity when it comes to price and performance we can expect even bigger rises in e-car sales as soon as the first e-cars for the masses hit the market. It is said to happen in 2017 with the Model 3 from Tesla and other manufacturers will surely follow.

    Therefore I believe e-cars have to be taken into account when wanting to meet the EU requirement and the 10% biofuel regulation is needless. Then again, why should the goal be “just” 10%, why not aim higher despite not having any requirement to do so. Then one can start arguing if 10% biofuel is a sustainable approach and your article gives good pros and cons.

    Also I’d like to add that I don’t think the argument about the bio-fuel plant market competing with the edible plant market was weak as stated by a previous commentator. It is definitely a problem which will need counter measures if 10% biofuel will be introduce widely.

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  6. An intriguing read indeed!

    In my opinion one ought to be impartial in the case presented here rather than being selective. The reason being that every proposed change accompanies pros and cons which, in most cases, are inseparable. Also, the matter requires far more indepth knowledge of all the intertwined aspects of using E-fuels to make a strong case either way, which I presume is beyond the scope of the article. There was a lack of quantitative comparison and analysis, yet again due to same reason – limited scope. Therefore, it would be unwise to give preference to either ‘for’ or ‘against’ E-fuels.

    However, the authors are to be commended for such a concise overview of the matter alongwith their research presented.

    After reading the article in detail and quickly skimming through the associated links, it is evident that there exists a future for variably resourced E-fuels. However, extensive research into their sustainability, effects on general user and indirect influences to population needs to be conducted. It may even be good to review whether the EU’s goal to have 10% road transport energy from renewable resources is realistically achieveable within the timeframe given. And finally, from an engineering point of view, an extensive high level research must also be conducted to find whether the current transport technology is capable of adequate performace once subjected to E-fuels and how can this be imrpoved.

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  7. Excellent article!

    You have really hit the nail on the head in terms of what the barriers to success are for E-Fuels. Land requirements and fuel availability are really the crux of what is holding back this industry as well as the increased gallons per mile that is caused by moving to E85. As you also mentioned it would be great to see more investment in looking at using food and bio waste as a source for ethanol in the future as well and it is a shame that we haven’t seen a push for this technology when we already have a lot of the infrastructure thanks to bio-methane production.

    On a more positive note as you mentioned the performance car industry really is at the frontier of adopting ethanol fuel and this is steadily filtering down to road users. Where previously E85 was used as race fuel only ECU companies such as Haltech are now incorporating flex fuel sensor technology into their latest aftermarket ECUs which allows for both unleaded, E85 or any mix of the two to be used as fuel for your car. As a result of this popularity we could slowly see more and more petrol stations begin to stock E85 over time as the market grows.

    Does that mean we will all be moving to E85? I think your article very realistically points to emissions targets as the milestones to push to and as a result I think adoption will continue to be slow for a while to come.

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