With Porsche in Patagonia: are e-fuels an alternative?

It’s windy in Punta Arenas, on the southern tip of Chile. It blows hard enough to resist opening the doors of my Porsche Panamera. If I’m not careful, they’ll hit me again with great force. Marcelo Daller speaks of a “high-quality wind”: More than 70 percent of the time it is consistently so strong that it can set the blades of a huge turbine in motion with vehemence. In the remaining 30 percent, the wind is sometimes too weak, but mostly even stronger. At more than 90 km/h (Beaufort 10), the turbine switches off.

Daller directs the Haru-Oni factory, which is fully powered by this turbine and currently still serves as a demonstration object. It is owned by HIF, which stands for Highly Innovative Fuels; Porsche has invested around 70 million euros in the project. At the moment, the factory can produce 350 liters of synthetic fuel per day, but when fully expanded – with 60 wind turbines and a large-scale CO2 capture device – it should remove 230,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and 66 million liters of e- generate fuels.

Synthetic fuels made from carbon and hydrogen are nothing new, but there has been pressure behind the topic for a number of years. The process is constantly being improved to make them cheaper. HIF has big plans: They want to start regular operations in Patagonia this year, and next year construction work will begin in the US state of Texas and on the Australian island of Tasmania. In 2027, all three locations together should produce 150,000 barrels of e-fuels (approx. 24 million liters) per day and remove 25 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Most of the shares in HIF belong to the Chilean company AME (Andes Mining and Energy), and a leading manager there is an old university colleague of Thomas Friemuth, the series manager of the Panamera. A happy coincidence: “When he told me about the potential of e-fuels, it was actually clear to me that Porsche should get involved here,” says Friemuth. “Electric cars are very good, but we will have internal combustion engine cars on the road for many years to come – new and old. E-fuels are the only fuel that is CO2-neutral. It’s not electricity.”

Friemuth refers to the fact, which is often kept secret, that the electricity used to drive electric cars is often generated with coal or gas. Electricity from water, wind or solar cells may be clean – just like nuclear power – but e-fuels take it a step further by being generated from the carbon captured from atmospheric CO2. With the alternative fuel, petrol and diesel engines can even take more CO2 out of the atmosphere than they emit.

The project in Chile does not currently have a system for CO2 capture, but it will be built this year. Put simply, the plant pulls carbon out of the air and mixes it with hydrogen, which is obtained from seawater by electrolysis, to produce methanol. The energy required for this is completely covered by the wind. The methanol is synthesized into e-fuel, which is then used to make fuel for cars, airplanes or ships. It is brought to Europe by ship from South America. The planned factory in Texas will supply North America, while Tasmania will supply Asia.

The biggest challenge for e-fuels is the cost. It takes large volumes – and even then, the fuels will still be more expensive than refining mineral oil, which, after all, is still available in large quantities. “We can’t get as cheap as crude oil,” says Marcos Marques, project manager at Porsche for e-fuels. He doesn’t want to commit to a price.

But he says: “Fuel costs are largely defined by taxes and regulation. That is why governments must get involved and ensure competitiveness. Crude oil must become more expensive – or synthetic fuels must be promoted.”

Incidentally, a spokesman for the Canadian company Carbon Engineering gave the “New York Times” insights as early as 2019: The fuel would cost around 1.35 euros per liter – without transport costs and taxes. Carbon Engineering is working on the topic of CO2 capture in British Columbia, but is not involved in the HIF and Porsche projects.

e-Fuels are the ultimate step towards decarbonization: “It is important to note that the technologies used to reduce CO2 emissions, including synthetic fuels with a low carbon footprint, still have a certain probability of causing residual emissions,” said a spokesman from Carbon Engineering. He explains: “The sophisticated solutions for CO2 capture can be used in parallel to reduce these residual CO2 emissions to net zero. Ultimately, we need a whole toolbox of carbon reduction and carbon elimination measures to decarbonize the world.”

The beauty of e-fuels is that they can be used as a direct alternative to high-octane gasoline without any modifications to the engine. To demonstrate that, Porsche also invited me here, to the southern tip of South America. And provided me with a Panamera E-Hybrid for a 500-kilometer tour with e-fuel in the tank, once around Torres del Paine National Park.

The five-door worked exactly as expected: no chokes, no drop in performance, no additional consumption. And the driver’s thoughts are not about the fuel (or the state of charge), but about the road and the landscape.

The market potential for e-fuels seems to be huge, even if governments want to ban combustion engines in the future. Even if that happens, there will still be a market for airplanes and ships that are unlikely to run on electricity in a meaningful way. And what Thomas Friemuth puts it like this applies to cars: “With e-fuels, we can at least continue to drive our existing cars. After all, not everyone wants to drive an electric car.” (cen/Mark Richardson)

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