Formula 1 is developing a 100% sustainable fuel
It wants to keep the internal combustion engine alive
As the car industry moves further and further towards electrification, it's left a bit of a question mark looming over the future of Formula 1's powertrains. Will the series stick with its V6 turbo hybrids for the foreseeable future, or will it end up going fully electric? Of course, this has caused a huge amount of debate amongst fans, drivers and supremos of the sport. Formula 1 potentially ditching the internal combustion engine and going electric is already a controversial notion to old-school fans, who would rather have V10s and V12s back than the powertrain arrangement F1 has now. Perhaps those fans can breathe a bit of a sigh of relief though, as Formula 1 has worked out a way to keep the combustion engine as part of its powertrain setup. The series will be developing a 100% sustainable fuel!
The new fuel is expected to be introduced as part of the next generation of power unit regulations, which will likely appear in 2025 or 2026. The fuel will be laboratory created and potentially make use of methods such as carbon capture to get the elements to put it together. These elements could also come from sources such as municipal waste or agricultural waste. "Carbon capture is a method that actually we're quite keen on, because it takes the carbon directly out of the air," said F1's Chief Technical Officer Pat Symonds when talking about it with F1. "It’s in its infancy, but there are plants doing it; there’s some in Canada, there's one in Switzerland that's quite large, there's some in South America that are quite large. So it is doable, and I think in 20 years’ time, actually there'll be quite a lot of it around. But it is very, very experimental."
The overall aim is to formulate a 100% sustainable fuel that has the same energy density as the fuel that's currently used in F1, meaning that overall performance shouldn't be affected. "We currently have fuels which are about 44 megajoules per kilogram," Symonds explained. "They're very, very energy-dense. The alcohol fuels, like ethanol, are much less energy-dense, which means you have to have a greater volume of them if you want the same power. Motorsport is about power, but it's particularly about power density; we don't want huge cars with huge fuel tanks, we want small fuel tanks and a lot of very good quality, power-dense fuel in it. So we have to synthesise that, and that's not the easiest thing to do."
Whilst burning sustainable fuels does still produce carbon dioxide, it won't be creating any new carbon dioxide that isn't already in the atmosphere. As a result, it should be net-zero carbon. Because of this, Formula 1 expects that they could cut carbon emissions down by up to 65%. "We're not producing any CO2 that is not already in the atmosphere at the moment," Symonds explained. "We're taking it out of the atmosphere, we're using it, and we're putting it back in the atmosphere."
Formula 1 has bigger plans for the new sustainable fuel than just using it in the racing cars, too. F1 wants the fuel suppliers it's talking to regarding the sustainable fuel development to be able to scale up production for use by the general public. This would include not only fuel for cars but also fuel for other types of vehicles that people use every day. "The techniques that we will hone and make more efficient and mainstream to produce our fuels are exactly the same techniques that can produce the fuel for trucks, for trains, for aircraft, even if those fuels are slightly different," said Symonds about the potential applications for the new sustainable fuel. "An aircraft fuel for a gas turbine engine, it is a bit different to our fuel, but the technique of making it is essentially the same."
There's another consequence of Formula 1 switching to sustainable fuels that could help the sport a lot too; the Volkswagen Group is very interested in sustainable fuel development. With F1 fully throwing its weight behind sustainable fuels, it could very well give another reason for Audi and/or Porsche to enter the series as a powertrain supplier or even with full factory-supported teams. Porsche Motorsport's Vice President Fritz Enzinger already told Automotive News Europe earlier in the year that Porsche would consider joining F1 if the series committed to sustainable fuels. Perhaps not only will developing a 100% sustainable fuel make F1 greener, but it'll also make more manufacturers want to enter the sport? We'll just have to see in a few years' time...