8 December 2022
Sustainable Fuels: Myths Vs Truths
Whether it’s opting for plastic free packaging or installing solar panels, more and more people are taking action to reduce their impact on the environment. Across the globe, we clearly have an appetite for change. What isn’t always as clear, however, is the information we’re given to act on.
With so many conflicting opinions and sources of information available, it can be hard to know what initiatives and innovations to champion. But if we don’t explore the unknown, we run the risk of overlooking or dismissing some of our most viable options for change.
The electrification of road transportation is a future we want to all get to – but it will take time. One more immediate alternative which is often overlooked is sustainable fuel. It’s an option which could reduce our emissions by up to 80% with an almost immediate roll out on our forecourts and into the existing fleet out on the roads.
But the introduction of E10 has created some questions and mistrust around the idea of sustainable fuels, which little is being done to counter.
Sustainable fuel experts at Coryton have taken a look at some of the most common misunderstandings around the subject, in a bid to clear up some of the myths:
Myth: Sustainable fuel is no better for the environment than fossil fuels because it still releases CO2 at the tailpipe.
Truth: Firstly, the government’s own statistics show sustainable fuel could reduce emissions by up to 80% compared to fossil fuels[i]. Sustainable fuels are sustainable because they effectively recycle the carbon. The carbon a sustainable fuel contains is captured or absorbed from the atmosphere during the production process – for example, the agricultural products absorb CO2 whilst they grow. Once it is turned into fuel and burnt, that same carbon is then released back into the atmosphere. Fossil fuel, on the other hand, has held its carbon safe for millions of years. Burning it releases additional CO2 into the atmosphere that was not there before.
Secondly, this question (like many narratives and legislative frameworks in this area) puts the focus on tailpipe emissions. But, if we want to look at the actual environmental impact, we really need to look at the bigger picture. A vehicle’s (and a fuel’s) life cycle runs from its production to its disposal, and the various stages involved in this cycle can also include the creation of pollutants. If we want to weigh up what’s best for our planet, we need to explore the environmental impact of all these stages.
Myth: Sustainable fuel is made using crops/land which could otherwise be used for food.
Truth: There are several different types of sustainable fuel. If you’re talking about first generation biofuels (those made from corn or sugar cane) this statement can be true. However, second generation biofuels, which are now more of a focus in the industry, are made with agricultural waste such as straw, by-products or waste from crops which wouldn’t be used for consumption. They can also be synthetic or e-fuels, created in a chemical process. Sustainable fuels should not use any resources which could otherwise be used for food, nor do they need to.
Myth: Cars do not run well on sustainable fuel, as demonstrated by E10.
Truth: Sustainable fuels perform incredibly well. And this has been proven by one of the most testing industries possible – motorsport.
The motorsport industry has been looking at ways to make itself more environmentally friendly for some time and sustainable fuel is starting to make a real impact. At Coryton we recently worked with Prodrive to provide sustainable fuel for the BRX team taking part at Dakar 2022, one of the world’s most challenging races. Two of the vehicles fueled by us came second and fourth – proving there doesn’t need to be a drop in performance using sustainable fuels. F1 will also see all cars run on sustainable fuel by 2026.
Myth: You get far less mileage from your vehicle when you use ethanol-based sustainable fuels.
Truth: Ethanol is less energy dense than its counterparts, by around a third. That means it has less energy per litre than petrol so you need to use more litres of it to produce the same energy – this shows up as a reduction in miles per gallon. However, at the level ethanol is used in fuel (a maximum of 10% in the UK), this difference is imperceptible to most people. In fact, it translates to a real-life performance reduction of around 1-3%.
It’s also worth noting that there are non-ethanol bio-fuels in production that avoid the use of ethanol altogether. These are created by removing the ‘non-energy portion’ of the fuel (oxygen in the ethanol) and using the rest of the good carbon and hydrogen to make fuels that look and perform just like fossil fuels e.g. Coryton’s biogasoline. So, we mustn’t generalize on this matter.
Myth: Not all cars/vehicles can run on sustainable fuel.
Truth: This depends on what sustainable fuel you’re looking at. The Government anticipates that around 95% of petrol-powered vehicles are compatible with E10 fuel. Older and classic cars (and some mopeds) might struggle due to the bio-ethanol content of E10. We can’t really go beyond 10% bio-ethanol and 7% bio-diesel content due to compatibility reasons. However, ‘bio’ doesn’t have to mean ethanol or FAME. We could still significantly increase other bio content in our fuels like we do with our biogasoline without having any compatibility issues.
Myth: ICE engines are by their very nature ‘dirty’.
Truth: The internal combustion engine (ICE) is often seen as the problem, however, from a climate change perspective, it’s the fossil fuels consumed that render the ICE harmful. Huge investment has been made in improving the ICE, making it more efficient and cleaner. And, with further development and a transition to sustainable fuels, CO2 emissions from ICEs can effectively become net-zero.
The government’s own figures show switching to sustainable fuel could reduce carbon emissions by more than 80 per cent[i]. But even a staged introduction could remove 130 million tonnes of CO2 in Europe by 2030[ii] – almost the same amount as 33 coal fired power stations would produce in a year[iii].
However, it is true that ICEs running on sustainable fuels still produce emissions at the tailpipe and so do not address air quality issues – that is why zero-tailpipe-emission vehicles are still a very important part of the solution.
Myth: Sustainable fuel is not as green as using an electric vehicle.
Truth: No-one disputes that the electrification of light duty transportation is the future we want to get to but there are lots of other considerations to factor in when exploring our future with fuel.
For a start, it will take time to transfer the entire fleet to electric vehicles and to create the infrastructure needed. It makes sense to tackle the GHG gases from the existing fleet of cars on our roads in the meantime.
Let’s also look at the source of current electricity. An electric vehicle using power from the current UK grid would have to travel ~60,000km before it starts producing less CO2 than a standard petrol car and more than 200,000km against a car run on bio-gasoline. Although the UK grid does currently have a high proportion of renewable energy, we still rely heavily on gas-fired power stations so the electricity generation is not CO2 free. So, making the switch to higher proportions of sustainable fuel, which can be steadily increased as production allows, would have a more immediate impact on the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. By focusing on zero tailpipe emissions, we’re conveniently ignoring any greenhouse gases created at any part of the process other than the driving.
Myth: We should be putting all our efforts into solely aiming at all electric/all hydrogen/all e-fuel vehicles.
Truth: This is a subjective matter, of course, but we’d always champion an approach which considers short term impact alongside the longer-term goal – and which doesn’t discount all alternative solutions in favour of just one. With sustainable fuel options ready to roll out, there’s no reason why they can’t be used whilst we work to develop other solutions that will take longer to implement.
According to ADBA, 1 tonne of CO2 saved today is equivalent to having to save 30 tonnes in 2050 so anything we can do now is much more powerful than a promise in the future. There are 36 million existing cars on the UK’s roads – only 0.5% of which are currently fully electric – and 275 million passenger vehicles in Europe[iv]. We would rather be making moves to immediately improve these vehicles, rather than just waiting for the entire fleet to be replaced with electric vehicles or ones which can run on hydrogen.
Myth: There are no drop-in sustainable fuels currently available.
Truth: Drop-in sustainable fuels are ready now for everyday road cars which would typically run on regular pump unleaded petrol. No alterations would be needed to either the cars or the forecourts.
Second generation (advanced) biofuels that use biological waste as the feedstock, such as agricultural waste (e.g. straw) and forestry waste (e.g. wood pulp) can be used to generate biologically-derived mimics of current fossil fuels such as petrol and can be substituted or ‘dropped-in’ without any modifications to the engine. In fact, we recently provided a 100% renewable SUSTAIN by Coryton 95 RON fuel for Bentley when it launched its Hybrid Flying Spur in Iceland.
Based on the research and development work of our industry to date, sustainable fuel is ready to hit the ground running using our existing infrastructure. Across the world, there are lots of great examples of sustainable fuel working well in action. However, it is true that we do not have enough of it. So, we now just need to invest in scaling things up.
Myth: We couldn’t produce sustainable fuel in sufficient volumes to satisfy demand.
Truth: We currently don’t have the volume needed readily available to power the entire fleet – simply because it’s a case of supply and demand. If the funding was there, however, production could easily be increased.
One point that is often missed is that we do not have to make an overnight switch to 100% sustainable fuels. Drop-in sustainable fuels are effectively chemically identical to their fossil counterparts and can be blended into conventional fuels, gradually displacing more and more fossil-derived content as increasing volumes become available.
Myth: Sustainable fuel would be too expensive to make it commercially viable.
Truth: Deciding what’s commercially viable is a very subjective matter and the price of production would depend on multiple factors, including the method you use to create a sustainable fuel. However, the industry has already outlined various ways to be more efficient should we be able to scale up the production of sustainable fuels.
One method would be to use the existing refineries and economies put in place over the 160-year history of the oil industry. Many of the technologies we’re exploring in sustainable fuels, in theory, could be bolted-on or used in adapted refineries on a large-scale basis so that we could continue to make the essential chemicals we need for everyday life. If we could do this, it would go a long way to reducing costs of sustainable fuel production.
Another cost-effective route involves looking at the source (feedstock) of our sustainable fuels.
Biogenic waste is one of the materials we use to create sustainable crudes that go on to produce fuel. As long as the market allows, this can be a very cost-effective option to utilise.
Myth: Synthetic fuels and e-fuels are better options than biofuels.
Truth: There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the issues surrounding travel emissions. Every option offers pros and cons, and each method of transport has different requirements or limitations. Some of the more advanced fuels, such as e-fuels, rely on a plentiful supply of renewable energy and green hydrogen and so are not currently available in sufficient quantity and at a reasonable cost. However, if we use a blend of the technologies available to us and we’re prepared to adapt over time, we’ll be able to achieve real reductions to our greenhouse emissions and increase the speed at which that happens.
[i] The Renewable Fuel Statistics 2019 Report from the Department of Transport found an 83 per cent saving against fossil fuels.
[ii] Taken from Ricardo and IMechE – ‘Alternative pathways for light duty vehicles’ contribution to Net Zero objectives for 2050’
[iv] Figures as of 2020, taken from: https://www.acea.auto/publication/report-vehicles-in-use-europe-2022/