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Tuesday 18 July 2023

Comment by Editor-in-Chief, Robin Bradley

European Union is Now Endorsing eFuels as a 'Future Facing' Transport Solution

In terms of the long-term future of the global Powered Two-Wheeler (PTW) industry, there are several very important stories circulating at this time. One of them is the approval by the European Union of eFuels as part of its post-2035 carbon emission-free vision for the future of transport.

My take on such matters has always been that the future could not be one of a 'mono' solution, a one size fits all transport needs future; but that, literally and figuratively, it would have to be a hybrid future - a mixed portfolio of application-specific solutions.

Battery power could work for some forms of transport - automotive maybe, especially in urban and peri-urban environments, definitely for delivery vehicles and vans, probably road freight too; but shipping, air transport, long distance driving, motorcycles, space flight - these would all need application-specific solutions. A multiverse of power options and solutions.

My 'biggie' has always been the advantages that so-called synthetic gasoline can bring to the table, especially to our table here in the motorcycle industry. Those advantages run from being able to continue to use existing powerplants and model ranges, right through to not having to demolish and rebuild the world's gas stations and related infrastructure, with all the concrete and steel and other emissions-generating waste product and capital investment that would require.

Synthetic gasoline is, of course, only one of several forms of eFuel, and the term itself is slightly misleading. The hydrocarbons are the same as in present day crude oil, and the process of exploding them to release motive force is the same. The hydrocarbons themselves don't care whether they've been pumped up a tube from 10,000 feet below ground, or sea level, or have been cracked from other readily available surface level raw ingredients such as air and water.

“this is not trivial”

"All" that is required is to combine Carbon Dioxide (CO₂) and Hydrogen (H₂) in such a way that the resulting synthetic fuel, which can be gasoline, diesel, gas, or even kerosene, produces more energy than is costs (thus obeying the laws of thermodynamics), using input energy that doesn't itself create carbon emissions in its production.

There are three basic strategies for producing petrochemicals without fossil fuels: using plant materials, using recycled plastics, or through direct production from carbon dioxide and water. The most commonly used raw material at this time is biomass.

However, because synthetic gasoline can be manufactured by simply combining raw material carbon dioxide and hydrogen to create hydrocarbons (petrosynthesis) the end result can also be achieved by direct air capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the electrolysis of water to obtain hydrogen.

Various global corporations (such as Bosch, Siemens, Audi and others) have already invested billions into trying to solve the energy intensity issues that surround the cost-effective volume production of enough 'synth gas' to replace the volume of fuel needed at existing (or even lower) pump prices.

There are pilot production plants at work (most notably in Chile and Australia) that have moved production volume a next level up the scale, and that are using solar or hydroelectric energy to produce the electricity they need to drive production. 

But there is another foot on the hosepipe that has recently become manifest, namely the colossal level of capital already invested in battery power and the impediment that now represents for the needed ROI for any alternate.

Down the last 20-years or so, I don't know how many times it has appeared that the European Union (especially) has interpreted PTWs as part of the problem rather than the solution. That, in general, has changed in the past decade because of the success that Europe's motorcycle industry trade associations and their OEM members have had in lobbying the benefits of PTWs as a forward-facing transport solution. Thanks too in no small part to a small number of enlightened elected politicians in the European Parliament.

However, until now all that good work and optimism for a bright and satisfyingly powerful sounding PTW future looked set to disappear under the weight (literally) of batteries and their (present) limitations.

For an insight into how the EU's recent volte face could play out, make haste (if you haven't read it already) to page 64 (the outside back cover) of this edition and just think for a while about the possible implications that this change in direction could have for our industry.

Ironically, it has largely been pressure from the German automotive industry, placed on the German government and passed on by them to the European Union, that has forced regulators admitting eFuels into the previously too limited range of green transport solutions permitted in their post 2035 new auto and moto model landscape. Though not arrived at principally for reasons of enlightened thinking, it is nonetheless not a trivial development.

From the outside looking in, it has long appeared that the German government is one that just cannot entirely climb out of the pockets of the German automotive industry - regardless of how hard the present left leaning, green shaded three-way progressive alliance coalition has tried (which is, actually, not very hard, truth be told).

Either way, the undoubted sway that Berlin has over Brussels has forced the EU to compromise. Hurrah!

There are a couple of other very important strategic news stories bubbling under at this time. The latest Japanese 'Big Four' collaboration - this time the formation of a Hydrogen Power research consortium, and what is happening this year to the exhaust anti-tampering regulations in Europe.

We didn't have room for either of those this month but be afraid - future editions are available!

Meanwhile, back at the 'day job' - have you seen Harley's share price? It isn't good. Did you read my channel stuffing remarks last month? As Jochen Zeitz comments in Harley's statement about having to slow down production again (page 8) he, in effect, says that it's a good job the inventory pipeline is full. With Harley unit sales in the 11,000 range in April - some 20 plus percent down on April 2022 - it's a shame that dealers can't sell that inventory as fast as H-D ships it.