How do we fuel the future? | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

19th March 2021
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

Last week I wrote about the need to engage with young people and somehow get them enthused about classic cars if the industry is to have a future. One thing space precluded me from mentioning, which is still nevertheless still really rather important, is that we can get them as revved up we like about this and it’ll still be no bloody good if there’s nothing to put in the petrol tanks of said classics.


You won’t need reminding that the last pure petrol car will be sold in the UK by the end of this decade, the last hybrid by the middle of the next. Now, it seems certain that petrol will continue to be sold in the normal way for some time even after that, but whichever government we have by then will be under great pressure both socially and financially to make this petrol very expensive indeed. Diesel will likely only be available to large commercial vehicles. But the time will come when even petrol, in the form we know it, is simply not sold any more either because there’s insufficient demand to support the infrastructure to go with it, or because of legislation banning its use outright. Or both. What then?

We could of course convert our cars to battery power and I think for some of them, there is a lot to be said for it. I was talking to some friends in Los Angeles recently and apparently it’s already a huge and growing business over there. Someone has even created what may be the world’s first electric Ferrari out of a fire-damaged 308 GTB. But for me electric classics are best kept small, affordable and in town. I can quite see my old suicide door Fiat 500 converted to EV power, parked at a jaunty angle outside one of London’s more fashionable coffee shops. But electric E-types and Astons? Maybe they’re great – I’ve not driven one – but I’m going to take a lot of convincing. The engines of these cars are so integral their character than unless your motivation is posing alone, which interests me not at all, I find it hard to see their appeal. But maybe I’m wrong.


But why not just put fuel in the tank instead? Fuel, that is, not refined from oil sucked out of the ground, but synthesised in a laboratory? Not only is it possible, it is being done right now. Porsche in particular has gone in big on this, launching a joint venture with Siemens to build a factory in Chile that by 2026 will be producing half a billion litres of synthetic fuel every year, using green energy from the wind that apparently never lets up in that part of the world. There are issues, particularly involving its subsequent transportation, but Porsche insists that on an all-encompassing ‘well to wheel’ basis, it will still produce 85 per cent less CO2 than conventional fuel which places it on a par with electric cars.

What’s more early trials suggest internal combustion engines will burn synthetic fuel just as happily as any other so we won’t need to modify our engines and no infrastructure changes are required to use it.

What, then, is the catch? It’s our old friend the price, which is currently looking like being about three times what you’d pay for normal fuel. As we have seen with other great technologies – fuel cell cars in particular – knowing how to do it is only half the battle at best. It is bringing it to market at a price the customer is prepared to pay that really counts.


So much depends on whether this captures the mood of governments and public alike. If synthetic fuel is seen as a genuine alternative to an electric car, maybe it won’t just be classic cars that get saved. And the greater the response, the more factories will be built, the lower the price will be, the greater the uptake and so on round and round the circle of virtue you have created.

But will it catch on? Well it should, though that is not to say that it will. Saving the classic car would be great, the internal combustion engine greater still, but for cars electricity already provides an alternate source of power. But cars make up only a small proportion of global, transport-related CO2 emissions, and if you look other sectors with massive emissions, the maritime and aviation sectors in particular, there is no alternative technology anywhere near ready to go. But you can use clean synthetic fuel in ships and aircraft now. Indeed the world’s first commercial flight powered at least in part by the stuff has already taken off and landed safely. KLM from Amsterdam to Madrid, as you’re asking.

So the future’s bright. The future’s synthetic. Or at least it bloody ought to be.

Main image by Science in HD.

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