Just as the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so the road to Heaven is blocked by technical difficulties. Not the least of these is the creation of clean synthetic fuel for internal combustion engines (ICEs).
What do ICEs have to do with Heaven? Well, have you tried imagining the celestial sphere without Ducati 900SSs, BMW R 1250 GSs… or Harley-Davidson knuckleheads? No way, buddy. It isn’t Heaven if I can’t ride, and by ride I mean ride my ICE-powered motorcycle. Presumably clean fuel is available there; I can’t imagine polluting somewhere beyond the Pearly Gates.
We need a clean fuel, then, to power our bikes on Earth as it is in Heaven.
While riding an electric motorcycle might be fine in itself, it cannot match the bliss of being unable to kickstart your BSA 441 Victor or Sportster… no, wait. Let’s just concentrate on what we can actually do something about. Since converting our classics to electricity (by battery or broadcast), hydrogen, flywheel drive or even compressed air is hardly in the spirit of the thing and the refining of existing fuels sufficiently is impossibly expensive, that leaves very long engine-off downhill runs or synthetic fuels.
The best thing about synthetics is that you don’t have to make major changes to the engine of your existing bike. Then there is the fact that you don’t need special storage, such as the cooled and compressed containers that hydrogen needs in the form in which it is presently available, or the new and comprehensive network of charging stations that is required by electricity.
The technology to produce the obvious alternative is available today. Synthetic fuels can be made solely with the help of renewable energy. In a first stage, electricity is used to produce hydrogen from water, with only oxygen as a side-product. Carbon dioxide, readily available as a product of any number of industrial processes, is added to this, and the combination of CO₂ and H₂ results in the synthetic fuel, which can be made in the form of gasoline, diesel, gas, or even kerosene.
This process has an extremely low impact on the environment. As some countries like Great Britain, and naturally California, look to end sales of new internal-combustion vehicles in the relatively near future, the fossil-fuel infrastructure (gas stations) that existing motorcycles and cars rely on could disappear too, even if ICE vehicles are not banned as well. But Porsche has a plan to keep its many classic and current cars (and stablemate Ducati’s bikes) running on their current engines.
With 70 per cent of the cars that Porsche has ever built still on the road, ICEs will not go away overnight, says Porsche CEO Oliver Blume. That’s why Porsche is researching synthetic fuels, he says. Appropriately, his name means ‘flower’.
The synthetic fuel Porsche is researching is oxymethylene ether (OME), one of the fuels made from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. While hydrogen by itself can be used in fuel-cell vehicles, synthetic fuels like OME can be used in existing internal-combustion engines, using the existing fueling infrastructure.
At the moment, the company’s preferred process also makes cost an issue. Blume said the synthetic fuel Porsche is developing currently costs a steep US$10 per liter, the equivalent of US$37 a US gallon. Researchers are working to get the price down to below $2 per liter, Blume says, which would begin to make it comparable to today’s gasoline. Porsche also wants to establish an industry standard for synthetic fuels, which could help enable widespread use.
But just producing fuel in an environmentally friendly, non-polluting way does not solved the problem of ICE pollution, particularly the production of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide – what goes in, must come out. The most important environmental issue associated with a major commitment to synthetic fuel is the relentless change in climate caused largely by loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Even in minute amounts, the gas absorbs heat that would otherwise radiate from the earth out into space.
The obvious answer is to source the carbon dioxide from current polluters who are pumping the gas into the atmosphere. That way, ICEs might still be producing carbon dioxide, but it will not be extra carbon dioxide.
Michael Steiner, who is in charge of R&D at Porsche, says that Porsche wants to power up the development of synthetic fuels, known as eFuels. “This technology is particularly important because the combustion engine will continue to dominate the automotive world for many years to come,” he says. “If you want to operate the existing fleet in a sustainable manner, eFuels are a fundamental component.”
Steiner is particularly keen for Porsche to influence the specifications of synthetic fuel: “We absolutely want to help with this process so that the fuel is suitable for high-performance engines,” he notes. Problems like those with E10 should not be repeated. “When E10 came onto the market, the blend had some disadvantages. It must be different this time: it must have advantages.”