Currently, Formula 1 has no plans to go all-electric – While the global trend in the automotive sector is towards the electrification of vehicles, F1 is going against the grain and has announced that it will develop a new 100% sustainable fuel to continue using the internal combustion engine for years to come.
Formula One announced on Tuesday that it is aiming for the introduction of 100% sustainable fuels by the middle of this decade, as part of the green transition to a net zero carbon footprint by 2030.
2022 will already see the new generation of Formula One cars running on ‘E10’ fuel, a blend of 90% fossil fuel and 10% renewable ethanol, which is already available to many motorists at petrol pumps around the world. Going from 10% renewable fuel in 2022 to 100% in just a few years is an ambitious goal – but Pat Symonds says F1 is well on its way to achieving it.
“What defines the targets is simply finding enough of the products we need,” says Pat Symonds, Formula One’s technical director, in an interview published by the world championship website.
“There’s a lot of ethanol around us, it’s easy to set up. But when you start to get into these more complex molecules, there’s not that much and that’s why the middle of the decade is realistic [F1 wants to introduce a new engine in 2025].”
What is a 100% sustainable fuel?
F1’s sustainable fuels will include an advanced component that comes from either a carbon capture programme, waste or non-food ‘biomass’ – and, more importantly, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil-based petrol by at least 65%.
These fuels will initially be created on a small scale in a dedicated fuel delivery facility to develop the processes that will then be adapted for mass production. The type of ‘biomass’ you could use would include things like algae, agricultural waste and non-food crops grown on land not suitable for food production.
Symonds, meanwhile, is excited about the promise of carbon capture, even though the technology is still in its infancy: “Carbon capture is something we’re very excited about because it takes carbon directly out of the air,” says Symonds.
“We’re still in the early stages, but there are already plants doing it. There are some in Canada, there’s one in Switzerland that are quite big, there are some in South America that are quite big. So it’s feasible, and I think that in 20 years’ time, there will be many of them. But it’s very, very experimental.”
While Symonds attested that F1 is on the right track to achieving its goal of introducing sustainable fuels into the sport, there are obviously challenges to overcome. The key, in addition to simply creating enough fuel to power the entire F1 grid, is to create a fuel with performance worthy of the pinnacle of motorsport.
“It’s very ambitious, in the context of what we’re trying to do, to make a very high performance sustainable fuel,” Symonds explains.
“Road fuels in the UK now contain 10% ethanol, and they have been around in parts of Europe for some time. But ethanol is not the best fuel for high performance. So what we’re doing is we’re synthesising a fully sustainable high performance fuel, and that’s something that’s both difficult to do and difficult to do in the quantities that we need. So it’s a pretty ambitious step that we’re taking.”
The ‘energy density’ of the fuel is the key factor for a successful and sustainable fuel. But Symonds is confident that, when they arrive, sustainable F1 fuels will be at least as efficient as those currently in use.
“We currently have fuels that are about 44 megajoules per kilogram. They are very, very energy dense. Alcohol-based fuels, like ethanol, are much less energy dense, which means you have to have a higher volume of them if you want the same power.”
“Motorsport is about power, but it’s mostly about power density; we don’t want huge cars with huge fuel tanks, we want small fuel tanks and lots of really good quality, high power density fuel. So we have to synthesise that, and it’s not the easiest thing to do.”
“Motorsport is about power, but it’s mostly about power density; we don’t want huge cars with huge fuel tanks, we want small fuel tanks and lots of very good quality, high power density fuel. So we have to synthesise that, and it’s not the easiest thing to do.”
Why not go electric?
It will not have escaped your attention that there is currently a big push around the world towards the electrification of cars, with a number of governments about to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine cars in the coming years. So why is Formula 1 moving ahead with plans that would keep the internal combustion engine at the heart of the sport?
“What is really important is that we are not anti-electric vehicle. In my case, far from it; I actually think that for light vehicles in urban areas, electric vehicles are pretty good,” Symonds explains.
“They have some problems…but we’re definitely not anti-electric. And I think all engineers think electric vehicles are good for a small vehicle and in an urban environment.”
“Where they’re not good is where you need a lot of power, and you need that power without it taking up a lot of space. So when you get into heavy-duty trucks, trains, planes, high-performance road cars – which may not be a very big sector, but it’s still a sector that exists – then it becomes important.”
Fully electric vehicles (battery electric vehicles, or BEVs), meanwhile, currently account for only 8% of the 1.8 billion cars expected to be on the road by 2030, leaving more than 1.6 billion cars with internal combustion engines.
Furthermore, a full life cycle analysis conducted by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers last year showed that an electric vehicle powered by renewable energy would emit 58 g/km over its lifetime (including raw material extraction for batteries, eventual battery disposal, etc.). This compares to 45 g/km for a fully sustainable petrol internal combustion engine car.
Will sustainable fuel be less polluting?
According to Formula 1, burning sustainable fuels always creates carbon dioxide as a by-product. But more importantly, there is no net CO2 produced by burning sustainable fuels, because the CO2 they create is already in the atmosphere, or would have ended up in the atmosphere anyway.
“It’s a totally circular thing. We’re not producing CO2 that’s not already in the atmosphere at the moment; we’re taking it out of the atmosphere, using it and putting it back in,” Symonds explains.
As well as producing enough sustainable fuels for Formula 1 championship, the premier class is also working with a number of companies to ensure that production is then increased to make these fuels available to motorists and the wider transport industry.
“The techniques that we are going to perfect and make more efficient and more common to produce our fuels are exactly the same techniques that can produce fuel for trucks, trains, planes, even if those fuels are slightly different,” insists Pat Symonds.
“An aircraft fuel for a gas turbine engine is a little bit different from our fuel, but the manufacturing technique is essentially the same.”
More generally, the F1 technical director says he is already excited about the engineering challenges that await him in the coming months: “I love the creativity that engineering brings, but as the F1 teams got bigger and bigger, I became more and more of a manager and less of a creative person.”
“And what I absolutely love about what I do now is that we are really creative, we go back to first principles, we really study things.”
“What we need to do is make sure that we continue to push efficiency, use less fuel – and we will use considerably less fuel on the next generation engine – and continue this journey that we’ve been on for 70 years in Formula One while producing more and more efficient engines.”