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Formula One (F1) has announced that its next-generation engines will still be hybridized and will transition toward a “100 percent sustainable” fuel — that could potentially be used in normal road cars as well as its racing cars — in its mission to be net zero on carbon emissions.

Welcome to Headlight! This is a new Car Bibles daily news feature that lights up one current event in the car world and breaks it down by three simple subheadings: What Happened, Why It Matters, and What To Look For Next. We’ll be refining this over the coming weeks, but look for it at around 9:30 a.m. ET every workday.

This is not an unexpected step toward creating a more sustainable F1, and it reflects much of the performance car industry’s attitude about the future of powertrain technologies. Porsche invested $24 million into synthetic fuel development in 2020, and some sports car enthusiasts see these efforts as a potential savior of internal combustion engines as we know them. The truth is quite a bit less rosy than that and the road to a practical synthetic fuel remains long and arduous, but it’s an interesting technological pursuit nonetheless.

What Happened

F1 announced a plan to power F1 cars with 100 percent sustainable fuel that can also be a drop-in fuel, meaning that any normal internal combustion car can use it without any modification to the engine itself. As a stopgap until its planned 2030 introduction, F1 fuels will transition to a 10 percent ethanol/90 percent fossil fuel mixture.

According to the 2021 technical regulations, F1 cars use at least 5.75-percent biofuel where the rest is fossil fuel. Starting in 2022, this will change to 10-percent ethanol (which is a form of biofuel). It is unclear if that percentage will increase gradually until 2030. 

The plan to make this synthetic fuel will be via carbon capture schemes, municipal waste, and non-food biomass. With that, F1 aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to fossil fuels by at least 65 percent, and it’s hoping its new mixture will possess the same energy density as fossil fuel gasoline. According to F1, only eight percent of the estimated 1.8 billion cars on the road in 2030 will be electric vehicles.

Why It Matters

Formula One has long worried about its relevance to road cars and has been conscious of emissions for over a decade, most notably with the introduction of the V6 turbocharged hybrid engine formula. With this initiative, it becomes tangibly relevant to road car technology and, if they achieve their targets for energy density, can become a true alternative to fossil fuel. 

Still, hurdles remain. Current synthetic fuels may have carbon emissions benefits but they are extremely energy-intensive to synthesize and do not currently possess the energy density of gasoline. A popular road car alternative fuel is E85 (an 85-percent ethanol mixture with 15-percent gasoline). It is known to boost power in turbocharged engines thanks to knock resistance, but it does not have the same energy density. 

According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, one gallon of E85 has 73 to 83 percent of the energy of common E10 mixture gasoline while it can produce more power on modified turbocharged engines. Energy density is not the only consideration for a performance fuel, and this relates more to how much fuel it takes to produce the same amount of energy. As a result, E85 makes more power than gasoline when run with an extremely rich fuel mixture to replace the lost energy from gasoline, and consumers can see 15 to 25-percent less range from a tank of E85 compared to normal gasoline.

F1 makes an interesting statement with this: “the new fuel will also pack a punch worthy of the pinnacle of motorsport, matching the energy density of Formula 1’s current fossil fuel petrols — meaning the cars will be every bit as fast as they are today.” If F1 aims for a true fossil fuel equivalent energy density drop-in fuel, it may be revolutionary. If nothing else, F1 technology is the pinnacle of internal combustion with current cars making 800-horsepower out of 1.6-liter V6 engines. 

Still, the scalability of synthetic fuel technologies remains in question with serious issues surrounding the energy required to manufacture these fuels in large enough quantities to replace fossil fuels. I also am unsure of this figure of eight percent EV adoption rate that F1 states, with a restless auto industry shifting quickly towards making EVs en masse.

What To Look For Next

We won’t see the fruits of this labor until 2030, but until then, we will see advances in a burgeoning synthetic fuel industry bolstered by investments from major automakers. With F1 marching on towards a new engine formula in 2025, it’s seeking to expand the portfolio of engine manufacturers in the sport. Presently, Mercedes, Renault, and Honda are the only engine makers and Honda is due to leave at the end of the 2021 season, handing its facilities and engine technology to the newly formed Red Bull powertrains.

This announcement is sure to drum up interest from potential manufacturers looking to enter F1 through an engine program or through a factory-supported team. With rumors of the Volkswagen Group shopping the new engine regulations, this is surely a move to sweeten the pot for makers of road-going vehicles. With the industrial might and investment of VW, F1 could catapult this technology forward in a meaningful way.

The aforementioned Porsche investment is an extension of the VW Group and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more investments made by more automakers as they seek to diversify for the future. In the last few years, EVs have made a serious statement for themselves. If this technology will “save” the internal combustion is yet to be seen, and certainly has a fraught path towards that goal.

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