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Fueling your Car

What Is Synthetic Fuel?

You’ve probably heard that the way that the oil and gas fields that produce the petrol and diesel we put in our internal combustion engine (ICE) cars were once ancient forests that were somehow buried and transformed into the form they are in today.  You may have wondered whether it would be able to make something chemically identical to crude oil or refined oil in the lab, given that we know the chemical formula for petrol and diesel.

Well, you aren’t alone in wondering whether that could be possible. The truth is that it is possible to make petrol and diesel artificially in the lab without taking the aeons of time involved in fossil fuels.  The result is called synthetic fuel or synfuel.

Synthetic fuel differs from biofuels such as ethanol because it is designed to be completely chemically identical to ordinary bog-standard fossil fuel petrol.  This means that it can be used as is in a car with an unmodified internal combustion engine without being blended, which is what happens with biofuels (you know – E10 is 10% ethanol and 90% fossil fuel petrol).

Synthetic fuel is nothing new. In fact, the idea of making petrol for cars (and planes) from something else was tried successfully back in 1930s Germany, except that they used coal as their starting feedstock.  This was one reason why the German army was such a threat during World War 2: they could manufacture their own synfuel out of coal, which they had, rather than relying on oil wells overseas and the associated supply chain.  However, this method is unlikely to be used these days, as coal is still a type of fossil fuel and wouldn’t suit the purposes.  

The process of making synthetic fuel or synfuel starts with the very common gas hydrogen. The hydrogen is then combined with carbon (carbon monoxide) to make syngas (chemically identical to natural gas but made artificially). This is where the exciting part of synfuel comes in, as the process can either take the carbon from some source or it can even capture the carbon out of the atmosphere. This means that when the synfuel is used in an internal combustion engine, the carbon is just going back into the atmosphere where it originally came from rather than adding new carbon. (OK, you could argue, like one of my relatives does, that what’s in fossil fuels was originally in the atmosphere when that ancient forest was green and growing, but that’s another topic and another debate altogether that I won’t get into here.) Anyway, syngas is made up of hydrogen and carbon molecules (it’s a hydrocarbon, as opposed to a carbohydrate) and can be messed about with to make different types of fuel, including petrol.

The three main ways of producing synfuel are biomass to liquid, power (or electricity) to liquid and sun to liquid.

The biomass to liquid process uses organic matter as a feedstock, which provides the hydrogen and the carbon. This organic matter doesn’t have to be an oil-producing crop, which is what happens with some types of biofuel.  Instead, agricultural waste matter can be used as a feedstock, as can domestic waste. In fact, if the idea of synfuel catches on and becomes more widespread, they’ll be able to use what’s in the landfills and what we chuck out. This avoids the problem of deciding whether good crop-producing agricultural land should go to producing an oil crop to power internal combustion engines or to producing food. This type of synfuel can be referred to as biofuel, although “biofuel” is a confusing term that covers ethanol as well as biodiesel, so it’s best avoided.

Power to liquid production produces the type of syngas known as e-fuel. In this process, electricity (which can be generated by renewable means, such as wind or solar) splits a water molecule to get hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen is then combined with carbon from the atmosphere. The main byproduct is oxygen, and if the process can use renewable sources of energy, then it’s as close to carbon neutral as petrol can be.

Sun to liquid production is less common. In this process, a reactor catches the heat energy of the sun (not photovoltaic energy or solar power) and uses that energy to convert water and CO2 into syngas.

I think it’s highly likely that synthetic fuel is going to become more common, as a lot of us know that ICE vehicles suit our lifestyles and needs best (tradies, for example), who can’t afford to take large chunks out of their working days to recharge, travel a lot and need something that will take all the gear needed for their work.  This is because Formula 1 racing is planning to use it to power all its ICE racing cars, hopefully by 2026.  We’ve seen a lot of technology that started off in the racing world making its way over to general use, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.  In addition, Porsche has bankrolled a synthetic fuel plant in Chile that uses wind power and the power-to-liquid method.  This opened at the end of last year (2022) with plans to produce 11,000 barrels of synfuel this year.

Given that Australia has a lot of sunshine and the potential for using it for either the sun-to-liquid or the power-to-liquid process (with the help of solar panels), it’s not surprising that they’re setting up a plant in Tasmania (funded by Porsche again), which is due to kick into action in 2026.  Watch this space!

How Much is Too Much for EV Driving Range?

How long should an EV be able to travel on a full battery?  ‘Neue Klasse’, from BMW, suggests that 1000 kilometres is about right.  BMW’s New Class of vehicles are not far off the runway now, said to be arriving in 2025.  And they are going to be the first BMWs-ever that have been designed from the ground up to be specifically all-electric, EV through-and-through.

That does raise an interesting question: How far should we expect our brand spanking new EVs to go on a full charge (a full tank of electrons instead of a full tank of gas)?  Should we be able to drive from Sydney to Melbourne (877 km), Sydney to Adelaide (1374 km), Sydney to Cairns (2430 km), Sydney to Perth (3932 km), or just Sydney to Wollongong and back (about 175 km) on a full battery?

Most of us are probably sick of driving non-stop after 6–8 hours max in a day.  So, say most of that was done at 100 km/h, then 100 × 8 hours would get you to 800 kilometres before you’d be needing a proper cup of coffee in a proper coffee cup!  It would be then you’d want a rest and a sleep, right?

Perhaps Neue Klasse has got it bang on then.  1000 km would cover an all day blast up the coast from Sydney to Brisbane, which is approximately a total of 911 kilometres via the coastal route.  Get to the end of that journey, and you could pull up at a mate’s place for tea, or a motel, and plug in your EV overnight ready for the long drive back home.

According to Thomas Albrecht (BMW’s head of Efficient Dynamics), in 2025, New Class EV BMWs are set to have “thirty-percent or more” range than what’s currently available now.  That means that the brand-new BMW EV platform with lots of fresh pieces of technology, including 46 mm cylindrical battery cells, should push the Generation 6 batteries out to around 1000 km before they run out of electron juice.  Even though BMW could go further than this 1000 kilometre range, Albrecht suggested that this would be the maximum that BMW will offer because they don’t think that such a long range is necessary.

BMW will debut the new Generation 6 batteries in the 2025 BMW 3 Series EV.  How much do you think we should be able to get out of the battery packs in any new EV bought in 2025–2030?  I’d be interested to know – remembering that battery tech and recharging times will likely have vastly improved by then.

Power Pole EV Charging Points

It is easy enough to transform your garage into a recharging point for your new electric vehicle (EV).  There are other public recharging points around many of our main towns and cities now that are easily accessible.  So, for a large number of relatively new EV owners, life is relatively straightforward when it comes to having to top up their EV with power.  But what happens for those EV owners who live in an apartment that has no off-street parking or garaging for their car?

New commercial recharging stations of various types and in various situations are beginning to appear in Australia’s larger cities and their adjacent suburbs.  You can find EV recharging points located at public buildings, service stations, kiosks, shopping centres, and even in an EV owner’s garage.  The number and need for EV charging points is expected to undergo exponential growth as the demand for such recharging facilities grows along with uptake of EVs.  Currently, one in four Australian households do not have off street parking.  EV ownership for these people is a less attractive proposition.  There is a need, therefore, to provide easy access to a recharging point for households who don’t have access to off street parking.

An Australian- and New Zealand-based utility services company called The Intellihub Group is in the business of providing innovative power metering and power data solutions to maximise digital and new energy services.  One of the interesting projects that they currently on-the-go is providing power pole recharging for EVs.  This is a perfect solution for the one in four households with no access to off street parking.

Intellihub is in the process of using local power poles in a trial for street-side recharging points, particularly catering to these less fortunate EV owners.  According to Intellihub, there are significant gains to be made in the provision of these power pole recharging facilities for EV owners.  Not only will the trial provide easy power access, but it will also help to understand the impact of EV chargers on the electricity network.  Researchers will monitor how many people use the chargers during the trial and their impact on the electricity network.

Via the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), $871,000 of Australian Government support has been given to Intellihub.  Intellihub has contracted the first deployment of 50 EV chargers to be installed on street side power poles for a group of EV owners without off-street parking.  These lucky EV owners live throughout New South Wales in either apartments, townhouses or units without any direct localized access to EV charging on-site.

The power pole project is a trial valued at $2.04 million, so it is also supported by Schneider Electric, the providers of the EV charging infrastructure and Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE).  Schneider Electric will manage the charging service for the trial.  Origin Energy will ensure that 100% of all the energy required to charge the EVs in the trial project will be matched with the equivalent amount of certified renewable energy resources that will be added to the grid.

The idea of power pole charging an EV is not a uniquely Australian concept.  Power pole charging is already being rolled out across the world.  Some major global cities, including London, Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, and Hamburg are installing tens of thousands of power pole or streetlight EV chargers.

Power pole charging an EV in a city/town environment seems a rather straightforward solution to making living with an EV a whole lot easier.  Intellihub CEO Wes Ballantine said: “It’s expected that as many as 10 per cent of new car sales in Australia will be electric vehicles by 2025.  That equates to an extra 120,000 new EVs on our local streets each year.  It’s likely that many of these car owners may be unable to charge their EVs from home.  Power poles line most of our public streets and that presents an opportunity for the EV charging market.  They’re an accessible, safe, and practical option for EV charging.”

The EV owners will use a third-party app to manage their recharging service.  They will be able to get information about charging costs, time limits, billing, and other tools for interfacing with the electricity grid.

This is a big step towards a practical recharging infrastructure across Australia.  It seems that owning an EV in a congested city/town environment might be getting a whole lot easier.

Understanding Current Hybrid Vehicle Technology

So, what is a hybrid car in 2022?  What is the current technology ?

A hybrid vehicle combines at least one electric motor with an internal combustion engine (ICE) to move the car.  This system is set up to recapture any energy from regenerative braking.  There will be times when the electric motor can do all the all the work of moving the car, and then sometimes the ICE will do 100% of all the work.  And then there will be times when the electric motor and the ICE work together to move the vehicle along.

The  hybrid system ultimately has the end result of less fuel being burned and, therefore, offering its driver better fuel economy.  In some circumstances, like in a short quick passing manoeuvre, adding electric power to the ICE power will can even boost the vehicle’s performance for performing the task.

All hybrid systems are set up for the electric motor to use electricity coming from a high-voltage battery pack.  This battery pack is separate from the car’s conventional 12-volt battery system that runs the auxiliary car systems (e.g., air conditioning, headlights, coolant fan, etc.).  The high voltage battery pack is replenished by capturing energy from deceleration (typically this energy is lost to heat that is generated by the brakes in a conventional ICE-only vehicle).  So, the regenerative braking system captures this deceleration energy and sends it back to the high voltage battery pack which runs the vehicle’s electric motor.  Hybrid vehicles are also designed to use the ICE to charge and maintain the high voltage battery pack.

The main Hybrid Designs are:

Parallel Hybrid

The electric motor(s) and ICE are connected in a common transmission (automatic, manual, or a CVT) that will blend the two sources of power for moving the vehicle.

Series Hybrid

A Series Hybrid is where the electric motor(s) provide all the thrust, and there is never a physical or mechanical connection between the ICE and the wheels.  The ICE is purely onboard for recharging the high voltage battery pack.

Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV)

The plug-in hybrid system enhances the conventional hybrid concept with a much larger high voltage battery pack.  As this is similar to a conventional electric vehicle (EV), it must be fully recharged using an external electricity source (i.e., charged from your home power supply, your office, or a public charging station).  Because the energy storage is much greater, it allows for extended all-electric driving, thus significantly reducing your fuel consumption.  In fact, short commutes and a recharge nightly means that you’ll be running on electricity most of the time (great for city driving).  Should you deplete the large battery pack, the car simply reverts to being a conventional parallel hybrid, using the assistance of an ICE.  Plug-in hybrids can be either a series or a parallel hybrid system.

Mild Hybrids

When you hear the term Mild Hybrid, don’t start thinking it is anything like the Parallel Hybrid, Series Hybrid, or Plug-In Hybrid (these 3 are considered “full hybrids”) mentioned above.  In a Mild Hybrid vehicle, the electric motor is there to only assist the ICE for the purposes of improving fuel economy, increasing performance, or both.  It won’t ever fully move the vehicle on its own.