Illustrations: Alejandro Burdisio
We sometimes forget that there are lots of different fuels. Synthetic fuels have been around for years. Some are made from coal, corn, or natural gas. But there are more recent synthetic fuels that extract carbon dioxide from the air and electricity. The twofold advantage of this is that you’re not burning fossil fuel and you’re helping to lessen the impacts of carbon dioxide which adds to pollution. And maybe the third advantage is that it’s fairly simple to convert an internal combustion engine to run on synthetic fuel.
Internal combustion engines would only need minor modifications to burn synthetic fuels
Jens Ludmann COO of McLaren has touted its synthetic fuel car development to numerous sources including Autocar. Auto components supplier Bosch says synthetic fuel usage could stop the release of 2.8 gigatons of CO2 in Europe leading up to 2050. He also says that internal combustion engines would need only minor modifications to be able to run on the fuel.
There are other companies involved in CO2 capture technology. Carbon Engineering in Canada has been working for years on its “Direct Air Capture” system. It can remove more than 2,000 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere for less than $100. Its “Air to Fuel” system technology can right now use that captured CO2 to produce hydrocarbon synthetic fuel for under $4.00 a gallon.
Pulling CO2 out of the air reduces climate change
Pulling CO2 out of the air also reverses climate change. It doesn’t need expensive equipment either. Carbon Engineering’s Squamish, British Columbia, plant has been removing CO2 from out of thin air since 2015. It has been converting it to fuels since 2017.
Setting up small Direct Air Capture plants sprinkled around the country would eliminate the need to truck fuel around towns and cities. It also doesn’t emit contaminants that fossil fuels produce like sulfur, nitrogen, and particulates.
One other note is that CO2 can also be extracted out of ocean water. CO2 in the atmosphere has added to the acidification of oceans that is a separate issue from global warming. So this would be yet another way to clean up the CO2 in saltwater and convert it into synthetic fuel.
EVs require a dedicated platform whereas synthetic fuels don’t
Ludmann is also quick to mention that because it so easily adapts to ICE engines it is better than EVs. That’s because EVs require a dedicated platform. Of course, synthetic fuel usage will only be feasible in the future whereas EV technology is here already.
Right now there are a lot of new technologies that could make current fossil fuel production obsolete. While EVs look to be the solution right now let’s not forget that it creates a problem disposing of depleted battery energy. Also, if the electricity is being produced by a burning coal plant then you’re merely transferring where the pollution is being created.
McLaren’s goal is to produce a vehicle that runs on synthetic fuel that can be mass-produced. It could be a revolution in the manufacturing of all kinds of vehicles. Why this isn’t happening now is a mystery.