Synthetic fuels: the last hope for the combustion engine

The great replacement of the Vroum by the Dzzziiii, of the heat engine by the electric is not yet certain. The piston and valve have not said their last word.

Bosch’s announcement this fall of a likely return to synthetic petrol was like a mechanical ray of hope in the automakers’ electric nightmare.

The development of non-petroleum fuels – also called e-Fuels – is inspired by the Fischer-Topsch process of liquefaction of the coal used by Germany at the end of the Second World War to produce, for lack of petroleum, liquid fuels. A technology that has been sophisticated by apartheid South Africa to counter the embargo and recently relaunched on a small scale by China.

The future process, still being tested, consists of combining carbon, no longer obtained from coal, but from C02 – a gas fairly readily available as everyone knows – and hydrogen to produce petrol as well. , diesel and kerosene or gas. Which can be mixed with their fossil counterparts such as agrofuels: ethanol, vegetable oils and methane.

A fuel produced by the wind and the sun

You will retort me that to produce hydrogen properly, that is to say by hydrolysis of water, without “cracking” petroleum or rejecting tons of C02 as it is still the case today, takes a lot of electricity. This is where the green side of the business comes in: renewable energy.

The electricity provided by solar panels and wind turbines, intermittent and unpredictable by definition, is often not used when there is no need. To the point that we plan, to recover it, to install huge reformed car battery packs. The other option, the one that interests us, would be to harness this electricity to produce hydrogen.

And rather than devote this highly volatile gas, which poses insoluble problems of transport, sealing and storage at enormous pressures, to fuel cells, it would be a matter of immediately combining it with carbon to make it a fuel. stable, easy to transport or store.

And which, purer than petroleum fuels, will burn more cleanly in piston engines but also in turbines or reactors.

Because it is in the reactors of planes and turbines and engines of boats that lies the last hope of the piston engine and its worshipers.

Fuel cell or piston engine?

Anything that flies and floats will always need liquid fuels. The solar or battery- powered aircraft will not carry two hundred passengers at high speed for at least a century and perhaps ten. As for the electric propulsion of a freighter, it would ask – except to convert it to nuclear power – to replace the freight with … batteries.

But as these two means of transport, globalization of trade and strong growth of tourism oblige, participate more and more in the world emissions of C02, one cannot decently continue to make them work with oil.

The alternative therefore comes from hydrogen, either to supply a fuel cell producing electricity with the aforementioned difficulties, or to produce these synthetic fuels.

The enormous advantage of the latter lies in their total compatibility with the mechanics and technologies of today. Planes and boats, but also cars, motorcycles, trucks, tractors, construction equipment, in short with everything that, on earth, works with an internal combustion engine.

Electric conversion too slow given the emergency

If there is an urgent need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the extent of global warming, It is tempting to bet on these synthetic fuels whose combustion only rejects the C02 used for their production.

They would be quicker to implement than the electrification of a billion cars and tens of millions of trucks and other exhaust pipes.

Let us not forget that half of the vehicles which will cross the earth in 2030 are already in circulation and are 96 or 97% of the vehicles 100% thermal. And in 2030 – in ten years! – it would be very surprising if more than half of the production of cars and trucks were electrified. Rather bet on 20 or 30%.

Knowing that the production of a thermal car emits three tonnes of C02 and that of an electric six tonnes, knowing that two thirds of the world’s electricity is still produced by burning coal, oil and gas, one wonders even if you really have to hurry in that direction.

Only in France or Norway, two countries whose electricity is 90% carbon-free, can the electric car be considered positive for the climate. Two countries which contribute 1.2% to global CO2 emissions…

In short, as Louis XVI said, we did not have the rear end of the brambles.

The opportunity to save the western auto industry

We must therefore ask ourselves whether it is not more urgent to radically increase our production of carbon-free electricity and to build these factories for the production of clean fuels rather than to strive to smash the earth’s crust, either to extract petroleum but to extract lithium, cobalt and other metals essential to the generalization of the electric car.

The sun and the wind are inexhaustible resources, not the basement.

From an economic and geostrategic point of view, is there not the opportunity to save the millions of jobs in our automotive industries and their subcontractors, to escape Asian domination in the in the field of batteries, to exploit our innumerable patents in the development of the internal combustion engine, to talk about variable compression, opposite pistons, distribution and turbo electric…

But that those vaccinated with V8, tattooed turbo or crazy diesel do not rejoice too quickly: if the vroum is not condemned, the vroum-vroum has a lot of lead in the wing.

Because according to Bosch, these fuels will be more expensive than our usual petroleum syrups which “are worth”, excluding tax, 0.60 to 0.70 € per liter at the exit of the refinery. By 2030, synthetic fuel would cost double, or 1.20 to 1.40 € per liter before VAT and TICPE, or 2.20 € / l after. And not less than one euro before 2050.

At this cost level, electrical energy from solar, wind and nuclear power will be much more competitive in direct use in vehicles. The heat engine will therefore only survive as a luxury or necessity. It will only board in your car if it gives up its current blister to be light, aerodynamic and inevitably, hybrid.

So there will be many electric cars on the roads.