Motor Mouth: How to make internal-combustion engines greener than EVs

Given the right fuel, a gasoline-powered vehicle would produce fewer total greenhouse gas emissions than a battery-powered electric vehicle

Author of the article:

David Booth

Yes, you’re reading that headline right: an ICE-powered car could really generate fewer lifetime greenhouse gas emissions than a BEV. In fact, not only is it possible, it’s already happening. 

And no, I haven’t taken up munching edibles before Motor Mouth-ing. Nor is there going to be some oh-that’s-how-you-fooled-me caveat in the next paragraph. The numbers work, the technology exists, and the results are repeatable: A car powered by a piston engine that burns a hydrocarbon much like the ones that currently fuel vehicles the world over will emit fewer lifetime emissions than a battery-powered EV. Not only that, these miracle ICE cars will still spew the same amount of CO2 per mile — 173 grams of CO2 per kilometre for a Volvo C40 Recharge, according to Europe’s WLTP rating system — that they always have.

The difference — that miracle, if you will — is that every single gram of CO2 out their tailpipe has already been captured from our atmosphere: it works by scrubbing carbon dioxide from our air and processing it into 100-per-cent synthetic gasoline, that regenerative cycle meaning that every bit of CO2 the car puts into the air, it had already taken from the air. Or, as Driving’s own Elle Alder puts it so simply, the syn-gas “recycles atmospheric carbon back into gasoline,” the result being “net-zero” carbon emissions.

The process is actually quite simple, or at least simple enough that Porsche is already doing it, its Haru Oni pilot plant in Punta Arenas, Chile already electrolyzing hydrogen out of water (a process well known to anyone who took high-school chemistry) and then combining the H2 molecules with carbon scrubbed from the atmosphere (an industry still in its infancy, but definitely scalable) and the resultant environmentally-friendly methanol then catalyzed into gasoline (in a process used by New Zealand in the ‘70s at the height of the oil crisis). The resultant synthetic gas emits no CO2 not previously scrubbed from the atmosphere, and because it’s made in a “laboratory,” it has far fewer of the contaminants that produce smog. It is, for all intents and purposes, green gasoline.

What makes that all pertinent — and the reason for that ICEs-are-better-than-EVs headline — is that manufacturing battery-powered electric vehicles currently produces more CO2 than building a piston-powered vehicle. Much more. Some 70 per cent more, in fact, says Volvo. According to the company’s C40 Lifetime Emissions Report, while producing an ICE-powered XC40 sport-cute produces a total of 15.7 tonnes of “CO2-equivalents,” the same Life Cycle Assessment puts the manufacture of its battery-powered C40 Recharge crossover at 26.4 tonnes of the same greenhouse gasses. That means, at least by Volvo’s calculations, its EV starts with a 10.7-tonne deficit compared with its ICE equivalent, the majority of which — seven tonnes — is the result of the production of its lithium-ion battery.

2023 Volvo XC40 Recharge PHOTO BY VOLVO

To be sure, as Volvo’s carbon footprint report also points out that the CO2 (unrecycled) put out by the gasoline engine — officially deemed “use-phase emissions” — are immense, an ICE-powered XC40 expelling a whopping 43 tonnes of CO2 over the course of 200,000 kilometres of driving. By way of comparison, Volvo says that, depending on the mix of fossil fuels in the local electricity grid, the C40 Recharge EV emits only between 0.4 and 24 tonnes of CO2 in the same time-frame. In fact, the Volvo analysis also details when the electrified C40 reaches a break-even point compared with the piston-powered XC40 — 44,000 kilometres, if all electricity were wind-generated; 77,000 km with the E.U.’s current mix of power production; and 110,000 klicks using the global average energy grid.

But, if the gas car is not emitting any carbon dioxide — or, more accurately only emitting recycled CO2 — then the BEV, at least in this case, would remain a consistent 10 or so tonnes behind its ICE-powered equivalent, a point confirmed by the project leader in charge of Porsche’s eFuels program, Marcos Marques. It is probably, at this time, worth taking a moment to remember that Porsche is, and remains, committed to electrifying 50 per cent of its fleet by 2025, and 80 per cent by 2030.

Despite the seeming benefits of such e-fuels, Motor Mouth is NOT — that seemingly-childish Twitter-like capitalization used only because this point always seems to need over-the-top reinforcement — advocating the abandonment of battery-powered EV development in favour of “net-zero” ICEs. There is, as MM has constantly emphasized, no single solution to the problem of reducing mobility’s CO2 emissions.

The resultant synthetic gas emits no CO2 not previously scrubbed from the atmosphere—it is, for all intents and purposes, green gasoline

For one thing, producing synthetic gasoline is hugely energy-intensive, and, for syn-gas to be truly “net-zero,” all of the energy used to make it needs to be renewable. Some interesting calculations — again, by our own Elle Alder — suggest that to replace the production of all the fossil fuels used today — an incredible 100 million barrels a day — would require 1.2 terawatts, about 40 per cent of all the renewables in use today, and more than 10 per cent of all the electricity produced globally by any means. And, even if only 46 per cent of North America’s oil is devoted to powering cars — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — that’s a whole bunch of energy.

Besides, its formulation is so energy-intensive, synthetic gas will also be expensive, as much as five times as costly as using that same electricity to charge a (battery-operated) vehicle directly. Current projects — Porsche’s in Chile; and another, by HIF Global, in Texas — are still in their infancy, so current costs are truly sky-high. Nonetheless, economies of scale can only work so much magic and the most optimistic estimates we’ve seen for syn-gas is about two bucks a litre—

f it remains untaxed. And thus do we get to synthetic gas’ biggest roadblock to widespread use — governmental acceptance of its “net-zero” abilities, and its regulation as such. More specifically, emissions-neutral syn-gas could be commercially viable, but only if it is recognized for its emissions-reducing properties and taxed as such. If, because of its net-zero abilities, it remains untaxed, that $2.00-a-litre might be viable, especially since that’s essentially what we’re paying now.

And so do we reach the crux of the discussions before many of the governments pushing for reduced automotive CO2 production: What should be considered a zero-emission technology or energy source? Currently, all ZEV mandates are geared towards promoting electric vehicles. Indeed, pretty much every zero-emissions governmental edict is really a mandate to switch to battery power. Hydrogen is dismissed as a mere niche for “fool’s cells,” and synthetic gas decried by the non-understanding as mere trickery.

There have been some breaks in the case, however. The Financial Times this week proclaimed — with some remorse, judging by the headline — that “Car champions stall E.U. engines ban,” when, in fact, what representatives of Volkswagen, Fiat, and Ferrari were simply asking for was recognition of these emissions-reducing e-fuels.

Any technology that can reduce greenhouse gasses deserves to be considered emissions-reducing. Battery power may make sense for a plurality, if not a majority, of car drivers, but is nonsensical for long-haul trucks (better served by hydrogen), and other than scooters, off-road bikes, and short-haul sport bikes, motorcycles will need some other solution, most probably synthetic gasoline. And would it not be better that any ICE-powered cars remaining after the 2035 bans being proposed (some two billion vehicles, if memory serves) be powered by “net-zero” gas rather than dino-juice? Ditto for all the classic cars that, considering the truly stupid numbers some heritage vehicles are commanding these days, don’t look to be disappearing anytime soon.

The even bigger question then — and this discussion goes well beyond the purview of just law-makers, car companies, and scientists — is what are we trying to accomplish with our recent spate of laws, regulations, and incentives? Are we trying to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, or are we merely promoting EVs? As these new e-fuels prove, the answer is not necessarily obvious.


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