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April 2023

E-Fuel or BioFuel? The difference between synthetic fuels and biofuels

Simonluca Pini – Contributing editor for Il Sole 24 Ore

Traditional cars might have a future after 2035, thanks to the use of synthetic fuels. Bio-fuels remain a thorny issue: these are produced also in Italy, but prohibited by the European Community
Not only electric cars in 2035: by opening the negotiations to synthetic fuels, European Union has in fact prolonged the life of internal combustion cars starting from the middle of the next decade. However, the choice of the EU to open up to synthetic fuels and not to biofuels has created a long trail of controversies, linked to the different productions and technological choices of the various countries. The reason? E-fuels in Europe are produced in Germany and Iceland under the monitoring of the E-Fuel Alliance, with projects ready to go in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Spain. Italy, on the other hand, has embraced the path of bio-fuels, with Eni as the protagonist of the production of BioFuel.

Synthetic fuels: what they are, how they are produced, how much they cost

What are e-fuels? Abbreviation of electrofuel, they are synthetic fuels which are produced through a process of water electrolysis and CO2 synthesis. In short,  the process consists in taking hydrogen from water and carbon from carbon dioxide and then build hydrocarbon using renewable energy. This generates hydrogen and carbon monoxide which are subsequently combined to form an energy vector in liquid form, which will be mixed or replaced with traditional fuels. In order to have a "carbon neutral" fuel of synthetic origin, the electricity used must come from renewable sources (wind, geothermal, solar, hydro). Carbon neutrality would be possible by offsetting the CO2 emitted from the exhaust pipes of vehicles powered by synthetic fuels and the carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere for the production of e-fuels.
Moreover, synthetic fuels are compatible with the distribution and sales infrastructure currently in use for diesel and petrol and have a high energy density which makes them suitable for use in high-performance cars. These fuels can be used with different applications, such as e-Petrol, e-Diesel, e-Heating and e-Kerosene, regulated by the Din EN 228 standard. What are the flaws of synthetic fuels? According to environmental associations they would not be zero emissions, they would have higher costs than traditional fuels and scarcity of availability. The scarcity of quantities is also a theme addressed by various e-fuel producers, who underline how synthetic fuels will not be an alternative to electric mobility but a tool to continue to power vehicles such as high-performance internal combustion cars, classic cars, professional vehicles (for example, firetrucks) and all those applications on wheels that cannot be associated with a fully electric engine.

Biofuels: what they are, how they are produced, how much they cost

What are biofuels? As explained by Treccani, the Italian encyclopaedia of Sciences, these are fuels obtained from raw materials of agricultural origin. Unlike traditional fuels, which derive from fossil fuels, biofuels derive from the processing of organic, vegetable or animal substances, for instance from rapeseed, corn or soybean crops wastes. As for biodiesel, it does not require engine modifications and ensures greater performance. On the emissions front, engines powered by biodiesel contain lower concentrations of carbon monoxide, carbon particles and unburnt hydrocarbons. Added to this is the almost climate neutrality in the biodiesel production-use cycle. Among the doubts related to the use of biofuels, the use of land for crops and a limited availability of quantities. The main advantage of biofuels is that they are carbon neutral: once burnt, they release into the atmosphere the same amount of carbon dioxide that they had previously absorbed and transformed into biomass through chlorophyll photosynthesis. What are the costs of biofuels? They’re just a few cents more expensive than traditional fuels.

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