EFuels Could Save Internal Combustion Engines
You might think that an argument about cars, taking place thousands of miles away and concerning rules that won’t come into force for over a decade, would have little impact on the future of motorcycling. But the outcome of a spat between the European Union and one of its key members, Germany, could be key in providing a lifeline for the internal combustion engine (ICE) for decades to come.
Like governments all over the globe, the EU has been wrestling with the problem of hitting targets to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases, most notably CO2. Road transportation has been something of an easy target, and the EU’s initial proposal was to ban the sale of non-zero emissions cars from 2035—essentially eliminating the internal combustion engine and focusing purely on battery-electric vehicles. While motorcycles weren’t specifically included in the plan, in the EU two-wheeled emissions limits have tended to mirror those for cars, so the writing was on the wall. Indeed, in the UK—recently departed from the European Union but still using the same emissions rules—has already proposed the end to sales of ICE-powered motorcycles in 2035, with a deadline for smaller-capacity (sub-125cc) bikes set even sooner, at 2030.
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While electric cars are proving to be increasingly competent in terms of performance and range, they remain expensive, and it’s proving even harder to make electric motorcycles that can match the yardsticks set by piston-engine machines. Germany—home of much of Europe’s car industry—has been pushing for a change in the EU’s plan, opposing the initial proposal. While sticking to the goal of being carbon-neutral, Germany’s government—a coalition of Greens, Social Democrats (SDP), and the libertarian, business-focused Free Democratic Party (FDP)—wanted exemptions for combustion-engine cars burning synthetic eFuels. Now the EU has relented, and agreed to allow eFuel-powered, combustion-engine cars to be sold after 2035, provided they run purely on eFuels that are made using carbon-neutral processes.
EFuels are created using carbon captured from the atmosphere combined with hydrogen to create liquid hydrocarbons that can be brewed to act as “drop-in replacements” for gasoline or diesel. Provided the carbon is captured from atmospheric CO2 and the hydrogen is “green” (i.e., electrolyzed from water using renewable sources for the electricity used in the process) then the resulting eFuels are climate-neutral. The CO2 emitted from burning them is equivalent only to the CO2 that’s extracted to make them in the first place. The benefits include economic ones for vehicle makers—if eFuel becomes widespread, they won’t have to throw away a century of ICE-making experience and technology—but with true drop-in replacements for gasoline, there’s also the potential to make all ICE vehicles, old and new alike, carbon-neutral.
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It’s a technology that is already being productionized. Porsche, along with Siemens Energy, has been behind the development of a pilot plant in Chile (named Haru Oni) that’s already shipping eFuel, with a target of 130,000 liters per year at first, ramping up to 550 million liters (145 million gallons) per year by the end of the decade. It’s not the only example. There are several projects pursuing similar goals, and the rules set by the EU will inevitably influence the development of the technology and the investment made into eFuel.
MotoGP is shifting to 40 percent eFuel next year and 100 percent eFuel in 2027, with F1 racing to adopt the same tech in 2026. But the biggest driving force behind eFuels is aviation. While convincing battery-electric cars already exist, the challenge of creating carbon-neutral airliners is much more difficult. Airplanes need energy-dense fuel, with as much power as possible packed into the smallest, lightest source, to be able to operate at all. Even the best batteries are many times less energy-dense than gasoline or jet fuel, and while hydrogen offers three times as much energy as gasoline when measured mass-for-mass, it’s much bulkier, even when compressed.
In many respects motorcycles are closer to aircraft than cars when it comes to the problem of adopting carbon-neutral fuel. Like planes, bikes need to be light, making battery power difficult. Also, neither has the extra space to carry big hydrogen tanks. And that’s why the EU’s decision to allow eFuel-powered cars beyond 2035 is important. It means that the projects to develop and productionize eFuels will be targeting road transport as well as aviation, and if there’s secure and affordable access to eFuel, motorcycle firms, which simply cannot make with current technology electric bikes that match gas-powered machines in terms of performance, range, and weight, will be able to use it as well.
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There’s already plenty of interest in eFuels from motorcycle companies, and not just those without any electric experience. In fact, one of the biggest proponents of the idea is KTM, which has been making electric bikes for longer than most, having launched the Freeride-E 12 years ago. The Austrian company believes that electric bikes are only suited to replacing combustion-engine motorcycles up to around 250cc, and beyond that eFuel-powered combustion engines are the route to a green future.
The EU’s agreement is expected to be finalized by the end of 2024, laying down a clear path for eFuel-powered road vehicles beyond 2035. Since much of the globe, including places like Japan and India, already have emissions laws that are drawn up to match those set in Europe, making it easier for manufacturers to make globally compliant models, there’s precedent to suggest that the direction the EU settles on will be one that the rest of the world follows.
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