Human nature (taking the easiest route) and financial considerations (taking the most profitable route) are arguably the two things that drive the company forward. This is especially true when it comes to solving global problems, such as global warming.
The electrification of cars ticks both boxes but raises the question of whether the early decision to ditch combustion engines misses a trick. The world’s largest oil producers stand to lose the most, as alternatives could squeeze them out. While they may have a grip on the expertise and resources needed to drill and produce petroleum products, the same is not true for other energy sources. Yet they are well positioned to invest more in carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, which can be dispensed using existing gas stations without the need to build entirely new infrastructure.
Experts have been saying for years that the fastest way to reduce CO2 from transport is to switch to a sustainable, carbon-neutral synthetic liquid fuel that existing vehicles can run on. “Drop-in” means that, unlike high-dose ethanol gasoline, there may be little or no downside. If tomorrow the world’s vehicles could fill up with fuel synthesized from organic matter, the atmospheric CO2 derived from transport fuel would disappear overnight.
The Volkswagen group is one of the manufacturers that has been pursuing the development of synthetic fuels for around twenty years. Porsche is among the latest to stick its head out of the parapet with a racing project and now Mazda, which last year became the first automaker to join the eFuel Alliance, is taking an interest.
Like Porsche, he took to the racing circuits to help develop and promote the use of synthetic fuel. In Mazda’s case, a 1.5-liter Skyactiv-D diesel engine, rather than a gasoline engine, powered a race-prepared 2.
The Mazda runs on Susteo, a synthetic fuel supplied by partner Euglena, and the raw materials needed to manufacture it are used cooking oil (90%) with oil and fat extracted from microalgae, called euglena, for the rest. Using vegetable oil doesn’t mean vehicles drive around smelling like fish and chips. It is simply a source of sustainable biomaterial waste that can be converted into synthetic gasoline or diesel.
It is CO2 neutral because the plants that produced it were gorging themselves with CO2 from the atmosphere as they grew. However, the goal is to move entirely towards algae as a source. It can be grown on land unsuitable for agriculture and does not compete with food production.
However, it would take a lot to replace the world’s consumption of petroleum oils. Road transport consumes around 1.3 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel per day worldwide, but that said, the figure for vegetable oil is around 140 billion gallons. In other words, the idea of producing enough guilt-free liquid fuel from algae to power existing combustion engines doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Can synthetic fuels replace fossil fuels around the world?
Drop-in fuels made from organic materials could replace fossil fuels overnight, but there’s a crucial hurdle.