What is sustainable fuel?

Formula 1 has always been a proving ground for discovering new ways to build cars that need to be fast and safe. And in recent years, sustainability is also a challenge to achieve. A fight against time that brings together some of the best engineers and professionals in the sector. Precisely, one of the most promising fields that affects motor sports is that of sustainable fuels.

Beyond the fun component and the money that Formula 1 and its lower categories, F2 and F3, move, this motor sport is a boost for car manufacturers to develop new technologies to improve driving in all possible aspects. And in addition to the speed and safety of the pilots, sustainability also finds its way.

Alternatives to fossil fuels focused on satisfying the demand for means of transport such as ships, planes, rockets or cars have been investigated for some time. From here arise the so-called synthetic fuels and, within them, electrofuels or efuel. In short, sustainable fuels that pollute less than current ones but offer similar benefits.

Formula 1 and sustainable fuels

This 2023 season, the F2 and F3 categories incorporate the use of sustainable fuels into their vehicles. And in 2026, it will be the turn of the main category, F1 or Formula 1. A change that will be incorporated into the corresponding regulations and that will force the teams to change their engines and other components of their racing cars.

In a first phase, F2 and F3 will use 55% sustainable fuels during the 2023 season. And, each year, this figure will increase until they achieve 100% use of sustainable fuels, that is, non-polluting, in the 2027 season. In addition, a year earlier, in 2026, Formula 1 will bet 100% on these fuels, this being one of the star measures of the new engine regulations that will come into force as of that year, which will also it will increase the contribution of electrical components to bring the emissions of the single-seaters to an even lower level.

As explained by the president of the FIA, the International Automobile Federation, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, “our sport leads the way by offering innovative and proactive solutions that have enormous potential for the future of all transport.” Therein lies the importance of this decision.

Beyond the importance of reducing Formula 1’s environmental impact on the planet, this move could be a big boost for synthetic fuels to spread to private cars. The technologies that are developed in competitions often end up permeating to conventional street vehicles. Therefore, for the largest motorsport competition, in which many car brands are involved, to bet on this type of fuel, it could speed up its implementation on the streets.

On the other hand, synthetic fuels may not only become useful in urban or private environments. They can also be decisive in sectors such as maritime or air transport, two of those that emit the most CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year.

What are sustainable synthetic fuels

For decades, modes of transportation have used fossil fuels. That is, derivatives of petroleum, coal, natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas. They are known as fossils because their components have been generated over millions of years. From the decomposition of biological remains of plants and animals. And although we have learned that these fuels are finite and polluting, we still depend on them.

Technically the so-called fossil fuels are also synthetic fuels, since they have been created through chemical reactions, synthesizing the fuel from a raw material. However, today, when we talk about synthetic fuels, we are mostly referring to sustainable, renewable or zero-footprint fuels.

Under the umbrella of sustainable synthetic fuels we find many versions. The most promising are produced from water and CO2. Precisely, this type of synthetic fuel is the one chosen by Formula 1. Carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide captured together with hydrogen obtained from sustainable electricity sources. The most important element of this type of sustainable fuel is hydrogen, obtained through low-impact methods using electricity from renewable sources. Wind or solar, mainly.

In addition to being sustainable, because their raw materials are renewable, synthetic fuels have similar properties to fossil fuels. So they can be used in today’s vehicles and take advantage of existing manufacturing, transportation and distribution infrastructure. In short, sustainable synthetic fuels in combination with electricity can help transform the mobility of people and goods and reduce their impact on the planet.

Electric fuels or synthetic fuels?

Actually, electrofuels, electrocarburantes or efuel in English, are the same as synthetic fuels. These are two ways of calling new technologies carbon neutral, since they are manufactured using materials and methods with little or no environmental impact. Specifically, they are made by storing electricity from renewable sources in chemical bonds of liquid or gaseous fuels.

As we have seen, electric fuels are made from water and carbon dioxide, and the electricity needed to carry out the process comes from renewable sources. However, some call them synthetic fuels or preferably sustainable fuels to avoid confusion with gasoline, diesel, natural gas, kerosene or butane gas.

The reason for calling this technology electrofuel or efuel is part of its production method. That is, fuel is generated from electricity. Specifically, through a process known as electrolysis, by which hydrogen is extracted from water by separating hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then combined with CO2 extracted from the air and converted into liquid fuel, or eFuel.