By 2026, fuel tanks of Formula 1 cars are set to be filled with 100% sustainably-sourced fuel. There are currently four companies supplying the 20-car grid, and more working with the world championship on its future fuel regulations.
Aramco is the title sponsor of Aston Martin and the fuel supplier for the Formula 2 and Formula 3 championships this year with a “55% sustainable” fuel. It has worked closest with F1 on its sustainability target, and the feeder series are being used as testing ground to help them refine their technology and move closer to those goals.
By bringing more sustainable fuel to F1, there will be changes to the science behind the sport. Speaking to media including RaceFans at this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, F1’s chief technology officer Pat Symonds explained the technology behind their sustainable fuel plans.
Symonds began by explaining that the new fuels will, like the petrol currently used in F1, be hydrocarbon-based mixes. The key to a fuel being ‘sustainable’ is that its elements come from sustainable sources.
“Hydrogen-carbon is really the basis of it. And it’s this that we use to synthesise a sustainable fuel,” he explained. “Now, where you get the hydrogen from is reasonably obvious: electrolysis of water. It’s a well-known method of doing it, you apply electricity through water.
“Everyone knows water is H₂O. So you split off the hydrogen and the oxygen. So you then have your hydrogen which, if the electricity has come from renewable sources, is actually a green hydrogen. The carbon is much more interesting.”
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The way carbon will be sourced for fuel in F1 and its feeder series is, reckons Symonds, “going to start to contribute to the art and the science of what we can do” in making such technology more sustainable across all applications.
“Nature is great at taking CO₂ out of the air, splitting out the carbon, using it to grow the plant or whatever, and releasing the oxygen. So we need to sort of synthesise that process. And we can do that using plants, using algae, direct air capture, which is a very emerging technology. Quite a difficult thing to do at scale.
“There are [production] plants that will take the carbon out of the air. But when we talk about climate change and we talk about the concentration of CO₂ in the air, we talk about 400 parts per million as being an awful lot of CO₂ in the air. If you express it another way, its 0.04%. So when you’re trying to extract that carbon from the air, you’re really dealing with a very, very small amount.”
By sourcing the carbon and hydrogen sustainably, the fuel can then be considered carbon neutral. Although for the end product to truly be considered worth of such a label, “all the manufacturing and the transport” has to be considered too. F1’s 2026 fossil fuel ban currently only applies to the cars racing on track.
“When you look at the total carbon footprint in F1 as a sport, our carbon footprint is just over a quarter of a million tonnes. And of that, the amount that’s represented by running our cars around the track is 0.7%. It really is very little indeed.”
But Symonds reckons a carbon-neutral future is as realistic for F1 as it is for road cars. “We get just as much power from [sustainable fuel] as we can from standard, fossil gasoline,” he says.
However fuel generation must not take over from food production, he notes. “Can the fuel be created from a combination of non-food bio sources, municipal waste, carbon capture? In fact, any way of getting the carbon and the hydrogen that doesn’t compete for land use – as some of the ‘generation one’ fuels did [is suitable],” explained Symonds.
“Our little strapline is that ‘you can make this fuel out of potato peelings, but not out of potatoes’. You don’t want to be competing with the food sources. And the regulations have been very carefully designed such that we can really promote different methods of producing these fuels.
“This is a very, very new technology and there are many different ways of producing the fuels and no one is yet sure exactly which is the best way. So we have written the rules very carefully to try and promote the competition to produce fuels in different manners, and yet at the same time not produce a fuel that will be a runaway for whoever does it best.”
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One example of the attention which has been paid to the rules is in a change to how the fuel consumption rate will be measured.
“We’re moving for 2026 [away] from regulating the mass of fuel that goes into the engine,” he said. “At the moment you can flow 100 kilograms an hour of fuel into the engine.
“From 2026 you can flow 3,000 megajoules of fuel an hour into the engine, which is around three quarters of the sort of energy content that we have at the moment. And of course the reason for that is that we increase the hybridisation, and we’ve got a lot more electrical power on the cars.”
Symonds admits that creating the new fuel in the first place is an energy-intensive process. “There’s a term that’s called EROI – energy return on investment – which is one of the fundamentals of this,” he explains.
“It’s not coincidence that we drill holes in the ground, take oil out and burn that oil. The human race has a habit of finding the best and cheapest way of doing things. And if you move away from that, you’re moving away from probably the cheapest way of doing things.
“But what we thought was the best way of doing it, we now realise wasn’t the best way of doing it. We didn’t understand global warming at the time when we started using a lot of oil for energy.”
He indicates the process by which the fuel is created uses around six times the energy contained in the fuel it produces.
“You are putting more energy in than you’re getting out from a kilogram of fuel. So from that kilogram of fuel where we expect to get sort of 43 megajoules of energy out, you are using maybe 240 or something to produce that fuel.
“But providing that that energy is renewable in itself, you’ve got to stage one of solving the problem. And like everything to do with carbon reduction in the atmosphere, everything relies on an abundance of renewable electricity. That is absolutely fundamental to our future.”
The direct carbon capture technique that F1 wants to use, and Aramco will use exclusively for its F2 fuel by 2027, “cuts out the middleman” in harnessing carbon but is still a technology in its formative stages.
“It reduces the time scale, because when we’re talking about biological carbon capture, there’s a timescale involved in it. How long does it take for a tree to grow or a plant to grow or algae to develop? With direct air capture of the carbon, it’s a very short-term thing. So it has a lot going for it, but at the moment the scalability is still to be proven.”
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Aramco chief technical officer counterpart Ahmad Al-Khowaiter said the fuel giant is are “big believers in carbon capture” as a meant of producing a less polluting fuel. “We actually announced a big project to capture nine million tonnes a year from industrial sources of CO₂ a few months back. That will be up and running by 2027.
“But of course, the bigger challenge is capturing from the air. Today, the technology is still immature, but we see we are investing heavily in that area of direct capture. There is right now a number of projects that have been in Canada and Iceland and Switzerland. But there’s many, many technologies being developed as we speak to bring the cost of carbon capture down to more reasonable costs.”
Compared to the recent price of a barrel of Brent crude oil – around $83 (£70) – the cost of this still needs to fall a long way. “Today it’s $400 to $800 per tonne, which would translate to roughly $200 to $300 a barrel of oil, for example. Just to keep that in perspective. So that would be probably a very expensive fuel that’s based on that kind of carbon capture.”
However he says “the costs are coming down dramatically, as we saw in wind and solar” for direct carbon capture. “This technology, once it’s deployed, has a learning curve and we expect those costs to come down to much more reasonable and practical costs. The thing to understand, though, is that the energy comes from the hydrogen. It’s from the renewable energy. The CO₂, the carbon is a carrier in many ways. Because we’re bringing in basically low energy-carbon, whether it’s CO₂ or a waste biomass, this is a carbon that doesn’t have much energy, it’s a low energy state.
“The real value of adding the energy comes from the hydrogen, and the electrolysis based on renewable energy adds that energy into the carbon and gives you the fuel ultimately. So the cycle: we need the carbon to carry because it gives you that energy density. Think of the incredible energy density of hydrocarbons, which is really the useful aspect of it.”
Whether the energy in those hydrocarbons can be synthesised at scale, instead of just drawn from the ground and burnt, is the scientific challenge F1 has staked its future on.
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38 comments on “Explained: The chemistry behind F1’s sustainable fuel future”
25th March 2023, 14:10
Oh, now it is clear: it will be a mixture of fantasy and PR.
I feel kind of bad for Symonds for him having to sustain that nonsense until 2026 – when it will postponed, possibly indefinitely.
25th March 2023, 17:27
Yeah its greenwashing. Cars will still pump out carbon and road cars will still kill millions of children living close to main roads every year….and then there is the dementia.
26th March 2023, 14:52
Yep, this is a trojan horse to try and preserve fossil fuel infrastructure as long as possible.
I mean, with Saudi Aramco’s involvement in F1 and all the Middle East races it’s good to remember that less than two years ago Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman promised to pump “every last molecule of oil” out if the ground. Don’t take my word on it, Google it as well. It’d be downright catastrophic to our environment.
This scheme is a disgrace and an abomination. The FIA has outsourced full electric to “less than premier” series for decades to come with full intent. I guess the money’s good as Saudi oil profits are record high due to Putin’s unprovoked, illegal and genocidal attack on Ukraine.
27th March 2023, 2:45
Dan G (@dang)
27th March 2023, 14:08
It’s doubtful batteries will ever reach the energy density necessary for F1 performance (or for aviation). I’m not feeling cynical about this.
Rhys Lloyd (@justrhysism)
5th April 2023, 4:55
From a purely environmental perspective, extending the life of the vehicles we already have on the road, and the infrastructure that is in place, is way more environmentally-friendly than the monumental resources required to replace every vehicle on the road with an electric alternative.
25th March 2023, 14:20
Pat Symonds was very interesting to listen to, when he did some interviews during testing on F1 TV. He’s clearly very knowledgeable about the principles, but a bit more vague as to the implementation within F1, which is concerning. Though we are still in early days with this kind of technology.
The 2026 rule of 3,000 megajoules per hour of fuel flow looks very interesting. It’s a great shift away from the current rule of 100kg per hour, which received a lot of valid criticism when introduced. The energy-based restriction should be a more positive incentive to increase energy output and efficiency, which is exactly where F1 should be aiming itself. Full electrical power doesn’t seem to be achievable in the short or medium-term, and this seems like a good strategy to stretch out fuel-based power for as long as possible, to see how the global environment changes in the meantime.
It’s a shame that F2 and F3 are stealing the show in terms of innovating these fuels first though – if the technology is there, F1 should be putting itself in the spotlight.
26th March 2023, 15:35
That’s one of the reasons this is being pursued. It’s just not feasible at the moment, and may never be, to run F1 races on batteries. The energy one can get out of 110 kilograms of petrol is huge.
26th March 2023, 16:44
It’s not a significant difference. The energy density of the fuels used in F1 doesn’t vary significantly, so a specification of mass flow is approximately the same as a specification of energy flow (aka power input). In the naturally aspirated era, this was just as effectively accomplished by displacement and rev limits.
That said, I do like the idea of defining an input power limit and allowing more freedom over the fuels/power sources used. Personally, I’d go further and remove all other engine design restrictions. Make the only specification a maximum input power (and probably maximum input energy use for the race, like maximum fuel use currently), from all sources combined (fuel, electric, or anything else). We’d probably start to see much greater innovation. I strongly suspect most would still wish to use hybrid technology: full electric probably wouldn’t be practical yet, but the significantly greater efficiency of electric systems would allow greater power output with an input power limit. That said, some may opt for a pure ICE, and we may see fuel cells or other alternatives. It would be really exciting for a fan of the technical competition.
Dan G (@dang)
27th March 2023, 14:05
That’s a really interesting idea. Problem with that though is the broader the regulations, the bigger the risk to a power unit constructor of getting it wrong and being uncompetitive after spending tens of millions. Manufacturers like tight rules as it reduces that risk. If they had to run that risk, they simply wouldn’t enter.
28th March 2023, 8:41
Yeah, I know, but I can dream…
25th March 2023, 14:25
But Pat, leaving the classroom examples aside for the moment, where does the hydrogen actually come from?
That’s right, more hydrocarbons.
25th March 2023, 23:49
Actually, most hydrogen is made from steam-methane reforming, not electrolysis. Hydrogen is stripped from methane, which is natural gas. From the energy.gov website:
And this process requires energy, as does electrolysis.
26th March 2023, 0:23
Given the intention is a “sustainable fuel” as defined in the article by Symonds, the methane itself would need to be generated from secondary sources (e.g. from landfill capture) in order for the final fuel to be considered sustainable.
26th March 2023, 10:08
Exactly. Hence why burning hydrogen is the latest refuge for companies that only know two things: (1) how to remove hydrocarbons from the Earth and (2) lie about the impact of (1).
26th March 2023, 20:11
This actually is NOT correct @proesterchen. At least, not in what they WANT to achieve (yes, @stever is certainly correct that CURRENTLY almost all hydrogen is extracted from Methane, as you also mentions yourself).
As mentioned in the article, they are going for a fuel that can be made either from purposely grown algea etc (or waste, like the potato peels they bring up, but the issue there is / will always be that there won’t be enough of it to do more than fuel a niche sport like F1 or something useless on that scale like 5% added to kerosene for jets) or direct carbon capture.
Now, I think we should rightly be very sceptical of all oil companies jumping on this bandwagon, even more so when it’s a state company of a country like Saudi Arabia behind it. And carbon capture has so far not shown it is actually capable of removing anything close to the needed amount of carbon for anything close to reasonable cost / energy use.
But to get to a level where it does make (some) sense from both sustainability (i.e. both capture and electrolysis, including the “investment” being 100% done used sustainable energy) AND cost level (for use cases where far simpler and more energy efficient direct use of that electricity aren’t viable, like long haul flights for example) AND do it as at least a halfway sensible scale to make a noticeable dent in our our energy consumption habits is exactly the challenge they have set themselves.
So let’s see how they do, be critical and if they actually do manage to make that work, all the better for all of us. If not, well, I don’t think their attempt will hurt us overly much more than all that they are already doing.
Dan G (@dang)
27th March 2023, 14:06
No. As stated, it’s from water.
27th March 2023, 18:14
Go ahead, cite the part where Pat is actually committing to requiring the use of renewably-powered electrolysis in the production of the hydrogen used in these processes.
25th March 2023, 15:42
Leave it to commerce to stretch definitions like green, renewable, sustainable etc. And then we’ll have laws, some 50 years later usually, when the politicains have finally woken up, to define how far commerce can still legally stretch those definitions, making it legalised lying.
In the mean time, it’s still just bogus, and the prize, generally called ‘revenue’, goes to the people that are best at the art of speaking bogus.
27th March 2023, 2:48
The politicians aren’t asleep – they’re mostly complicit.
25th March 2023, 16:20
Potato peelings? Fuel can go in the catering budget then.
Short Circuit (@jjohn)
26th March 2023, 13:58
I really don’t care. I’ve got 4 gals of methanol which I’ll use of time doesn’t beat me. Selfish? Guess so.
26th March 2023, 15:13
And what about the green technologies used in tyre production? I strongly believe they manufacture tens of thousands of tyres they dump each season, by applying electricity through water or whatever colored liquids produced organically by micro and macro organisms!
26th March 2023, 15:33
This technology is interesting and worthwhile to pursue, because there’ll always – or at least for a very long time – be a need for light and quick to restock energy sources. Not so much in race cars that participate in longish races – because that’s just a marketing platform – but things like planes and such.
A bit unfortunate PR-wise that F1 couldn’t find someone to spearhead this who wasn’t banned from the sport for being involved in Alonso’s cheating Singapore win.
26th March 2023, 18:25
This is one of my biggest problems with “sustainable fuels”: they’re incredibly inefficient. If you charge a battery from the grid, then discharge it through a motor, you’re probably getting 80% efficiency from source. If you use that energy to produce a “sustainable fuel” and then burn it in an F1 engine, you’re looking at less than 10%.
I know fully electric power isn’t viable for F1-level racing right now, nor for certain other sectors (e.g. aviation). But creating these “sustainable hydrocarbon field” should be a short term stepping stone at most, because they are so ridiculously wasteful.
26th March 2023, 20:19
I think it only makes sense to use this (certainly long term, although short term there is not use case, simply because the cost and amounts available short term are just prohibitive) @drmouse for exactly what you describe – edge case useage as in long haul flights, possibly for some use in ships, maybe in military vehicles, sports, veterans etc.
IF we manage to be able to make them relatively economically at a halfway sensible scale, they might be used to extend the lifetime of the tens of millions of vehicles on our roads, in our mines, on our oceans and in the air for a while. And when we manage to build enough solar and wind capacity that we will have periods where there is a big amount of energy that is not “needed” it might make sense to extract that carbon from the atmosphere (provided we actually make that work somewhat) to stabilize the amount of CO2 in the air and use some of that energy to make hydrogen (or synthetic methane or even these efuels that can be more easily stored than hydrogen or amonia) to “store” some of that energy for use in chemical processes and for those cases where it might make sense to use it long term.
27th March 2023, 8:54
I still believe these edge cases are likely to only be required in the short term. We are likely to find more effective methods of energy storage and use than inefficiently manufacturing a copy of the dinosaur juice we’ve been pumping out of the ground to run in the inefficient engines we designed to use dinosaur juice.
Just as an example, it would be significantly more efficient to manufacture hydrogen and use it in a fuel cell. Hydrogen has its issues, and production is still inefficient (though nowhere near as bad as these efuels), but this is just an example of what can be done now. Efuels, as an emulation of dinosaur juice, already have alternatives which beat them in most ways for most uses (even edge cases).
27th March 2023, 12:24
I am pretty much with you there @drmouse, although after looking at various studies about it, I have begun doubting that even that is realistic to expect in any sort of shorter term.
Given how long it will take before we will be able to make enough green hydrogen (let alone for a reasonable price) and facing pretty much the same issue with carbon capture out of air that makes a serious impact, they simply will not be available at scale.
Realistically, apart from making it from fossil fuels, we have next to 0 capacity to make hydrogen at scale within the next 3-6 years yet, it’s not available.
So then the only edge cases are those that will still be edge cases in 5-15 years from now (since those that won’t will not go for hydrogen when other solutions are available and coming down in cost rapidly).
The chemical industry badly needs to replace fossil sources of hydrocarbons for many processes and while some of those can be replaced by raw materials extracted from crops, some can’t. And I think that industry will be far more able to “claim” hydrogen (and carbon capturing) produced for itself, exactly because they are often part of the companies being able to invest in them.
This is a link to an interesting independent study about expected use of (green) hydrogen from the German Fraunhofer Institute – it shows that the majority will see industrial use as raw material, or for processes where only hydrogen can fuel furnaces to high enough a temperature and only very little for transport.
27th March 2023, 23:23
Interesting, I’ll give that a read. I can certainly see massive problems with use of hydrogen in this manner.
The thing is that this makes F1’s decision to use synthetic fuels as they describe even more short sighted, as what you are saying implies that field manufactured by combining green hydrogen and carbon are never likely to be deployed at scale. They are taking of massive investment in a technology which is likely to be dead before it begins.
Dan G (@dang)
27th March 2023, 14:01
Depends what you’re trying to do. Battery energy density currently gives us race cars with the performance of Formula E – good but not F1 level. Formula E is pushing the state of the art but it won’t be ready for a while yet.
So I think making e-fuel for F1 and F2 and F3 is absolute fine – great, even, as it lowers the cost of this technology.
28th March 2023, 8:14
We need better energy density than current batteries for F1-level performance, that’s true. But is inefficiently manufacturing synthetic dinosaur juice to be burned in inefficient, obsolete ICEs really the best way?
Stephen Crowsen (@drycrust)
26th March 2023, 19:31
Why not make use of the byproduct of eaten potatoes? My understanding is most cities in the world have a sewage system, which is filled with hydrocarbons. A quick search with a search engine revealed a Youtube video where a plant is already converting sewage into a bio-oil similar to what crude oil companies extract from the ground. They claim it just takes minutes to produce this bio-crude. So say F1 were to base their fuel on this type of bio-crude, then how would they convert it from bio-oil to ordinary F1 grade 95 Octane petrol? My guess is they would do what every petrol manufacturer does – they send it to an oil refinery which would then do their magic and extract from petrol and other oils from this bio-crude.
26th March 2023, 20:21
I think that would work as well as the other methods he describes @drycrust, it just takes a company to secure the input and build up the process and make a deal with an F1 team to supply them.
28th March 2023, 15:09
That’s always an issue, especially when using wasted byproducts.
Bio-diesel can be made fairly easily using waste vegetable oil, which chippies etc would give you for free if you asked (or even pay you to take it). However, they soon realised they could sell it. Demand grew beyond the available supply of waste oil, which led to both the price of WVO skyrocketing and new, clean oils being used when they couldn’t source enough. Then came all the serious problems: competition for farming land, reduction in food supplies, etc.
If potato peel, for instance, became the new wonder source for sustainable fuels, how long do you expect it would be before demand for potato peel outstripped supply? How long after that do you think before extra fields of potato were being planted just for fuel production, displacing food products?
Dan G (@dang)
27th March 2023, 13:57
Formula 1 is all about being on the leading edge of technology and this is the epitome of that – driving forwards and scaling new technologies to give us high-density fuels suitable for motor racing (and aviation and back-up power generation when it’s not windy or sunny). I’m really impressed.
27th March 2023, 18:19
That’s just marketing. They are even throwing out one of the few truly special parts of technology, the MGU-H.
By 2026, Formula 1 will once again be on the leading edge … of 1996.
27th March 2023, 23:35
This is more about holding back and hanging on to old, dying technologies (i.e. hydrocarbon-burning ICEs).
29th March 2023, 1:33
So exactly which leading edge technologies has F1 actually produced – during it’s full history?
The list is surprisingly short, especially given the length of the history.
Slicks? Disc brakes? Turbo’s? Wishbones? Monocoques? Crumple zones? Fuel Injection? Rollbars? Radial tyres? Intercoolers? Ground effect? Wings and spoilers? Diffusers? I’m sure there’s a couple others, but let’s round it of at a measly 20.
Most of those were invented outside of F1 though, and those that were, aren’t used in roadcars.
So how many of these ‘F1 based inventions’ were done by and introduced into F1 over the last 20 years?
Anything new and clever is consistently forbidden by the FIA, who are thereby just as consistently making it increasingly pointless to spend money on R&D for these new technologies. Apart from that, they even torpedo their own goal of fuel efficiency by increasing the car weight constantly and allow DRS only in limited parts of the track.
How many of those F1 based inventions have really found their way into mass produced daily use cars?
Personally, I couldn’t care less, as to me, that’s actually not even F1’s responsability. It’s the FIA however that constantly claims it is.
Let’s face it; the FIA is one of the biggest air fryers in the world.
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