Why Germany wants to save the combustion engine

Without an internal combustion engine, what is a Porsche 911? The question, almost philosophical in a Germany which has elevated the thermal engine to the rank of national cultural emblem, continues to torture the automobile, the country’s leading industry. To the point that it has embarked on a very controversial battle to maintain the thermal engine beyond the limit of 2035, negotiated in the fall of 2022 in Brussels, the date on which they are supposed to disappear from new vehicles. Berlin, which postponed the adoption of the legislation, argues that this engine could be powered by synthetic fuels – or “e-fuels” – presented as “nearly carbon neutral”.

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Across the Rhine, the debate on the future of the heat engine had been brewing for several months, without managing to impose itself at the top of the political agenda. It has taken a decisive turn since the arrival at the head of Volkswagen of the boss of Porsche, Oliver Blume, on 1er September 2022. While Herbert Diess, his predecessor at the head of the first European manufacturer, bet everything on the car on batteries, Mr. Blume refuses to believe in the end of the mythical roar of Porsche. And he found among the liberals of the FDP, members of the three-party coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, an attentive ear.

According to information from Handelsblatt Friday, March 10, Berlin had good hopes of winning the case in this European negotiation. A way of compromise would be to find a definition of climate-neutral cars that is not solely based on exhaust gases. Still, this last-minute German rebellion has caused trouble in Brussels, where it is feared that such a tactic could serve as an example to other countries of the European Union wishing to protect what they consider to be essential national interests.

Unfavorable energy balance of e-fuels

The German manufacturer Porsche, in the front line on the file, has made a big bet on “e-fuels”. Thus, it invested, in April 2022, 75 million dollars (71 million euros) in a specialized company, HIF Global LLC, which exploits the powerful winds of southern Chile to make a synthetic fuel “potentially nearly CO₂-neutral operation of combustion engines”, promises the company. The Siemens Energy and ExxonMobil groups are also part of the project. This is the first e-fuel manufacturing site on an industrial scale.

The principle: in electrolysis, electricity from the wind breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The collected hydrogen is mixed with CO2 extracts air to make methanol, from which synthetic fuels are refined.

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