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McLaren Eyes Synthetic Fuels

Can the carbon-neutral technology eventually become a viable alternative to electric vehicles?
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British supercar maker McLaren Automotive is exploring ways to boost the efficiency of its high-powered models to meet future regulations.

The carmaker tested the hybrid waters in 2013 with the 903-hp P1 hypercar, which cost about $1.1 million. Now McLaren is about to go all in on hybrids. It plans to offer hybrids across its lineup by 2023, starting with an all-new mainstream model (which for McLaren means in the $200,000-$300,000 range) this summer.

There are no immediate plans for a full-electric vehicle. But the company is eying other “green” alternatives, including synthetic fuels.

Carbon-Neutral Synthetic Fuel

McLaren is working on a development vehicle that runs on synthetic fuel.

The program is in the early planning stages, COO Jens Ludmann tells Autocar. But he believes synthetic fuels could eventually become a viable alternative in future vehicles.

The technology, which can convert carbon dioxide into gasoline, diesel or natural gas, promises to be carbon neutral by reusing CO and combining it with biomass and hydrogen. Synthetic fuel also has the potential to reduce other tailpipe emissions, such as oxides of nitrogen and particulates.

Ludmann notes that synthetic fuels would require only minor modifications to a conventional piston-powered engine and could be distributed through current filling stations. They also can be easily transported, without the combustibility concerns of hydrogen (another potential alternative fuel).

The problem? The process to produce synthetic fuels is complex and expensive.

Ludmann acknowledges that advances are needed to make the technology viable. But he says the practicality and potential emissions benefits of synthetic blends earn additional development “airtime.”

Using synthetic fuels in a hybrid powertrain is especially intriguing, Ludmann says. He also points to further environmental benefits if solar energy is used in the production process.

Growing Competition

Several other carmakers and suppliers also tout the potential of synthetic fuels.

Audi has been testing such fuels for several years. The carmaker opened a pilot production facility in Germany with partner Global Bioenergies in 2018.

Audi’s Volkswagen Group sibling Porsche also has high hopes for synthetics. Last year, CEO Oliver Blume envisioned the technology being commercialized in about 10 years.

Bosch is another proponent. The supplier calculates that the total cost of ownership of a hybrid running on synthetic fuel could be less than that of a long-range electric car,depending on the type of renewable energy used in the production process over a vehicle life of 160,000 km (100,000 miles).

Several independent researchers already are making progress. Rob McGinnis, founder and CEO of Prometheus, who received a $150,000 from the prestigious Y Combinator technology accelerator program in late 2018 to build a demonstration model for new production systems, says recent technology advances are bringing costs down. He highlighted his technology, which he describes as a reverse combustion process, in the scientific journal Joule.

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