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The future of clean propulsion?

By Chris Mapp

A 3-way battle in F1 and in clean propulsion?

The F1 title battle has started to get interesting. Could we be looking at three constructors going for the title in 2024? It’s at least now a possibility which given recent years, is somewhat of a novelty!

At the same time, are we looking at a three-way battle in how our planes, trains and automobiles are powered in the future? I think it’s looking increasingly likely nowadays.

As governments around the world set emissions targets and people become more concerned about environmental impact, there's no wonder alternatives to the classic fossil fuel means of propulsion are becoming increasingly common.

For a long time, Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) have led the way as a fossil fuel alternative. But are they the only option for the future of propulsion? Or could something else take market share?

The one we're most familiar with, Battery Electric

I am quite sure that I’ll be dead before F1 goes fully battery electric. Formula E has been around for a while, but it enjoys global audiences much lower than F1 (tens of millions vs. more than a billion!). Whilst constructors like Ferrari continue to compete at the forefront of F1, I am confident that some form of internal combustion engine will remain.

But BEVs are what most people immediately think of when they think of more environmentally friendly cars to own and drive. 2023 saw global production of BEVs reaching 14 million units for the very first time, 40% up on 2022.

It isn’t all rosy in the BEV world though; new OEMs like Rivian have struggled to meet production targets and are burning through cash. Existing OEMs like the Volkswagen Group are winding back on commitments to go all electric. Concerns remain amongst the public over charging infrastructure availability and cost which dove tails in with and compounds range anxiety.

On the battle front, for me, battery electric would be like Red Bull in F1. With players like Max Verstappen and Tesla involved, you wouldn’t bet against them!

Is Hydrogen gaining some momentum, finally?!

Ferrari has been continuously in F1 for longer than any other participant. Hydrogen in mobility can make similar claims.
Hydrogen being used as a fuel to power internal combustion engines can be traced all the way back to 1806 and an invention by Swiss engineer, François Isaac de Rivaz. But despite dabbles in hydrogen over the years by many different automotive OEMs, it’s never really taken off.

Green hydrogen is expensive to produce, storing it safely and cost effectively can be tricky and the infrastructure for refuelling with hydrogen is borderline non-existent (only 1,020 refuelling stations globally). Sales of hydrogen cars fell by 30% in 2023 (down to circa 14,000 in the world, from 20,000 in 2022).

So why am I even talking about it then? Well, I think this long-standing fuel choice might finally be set to dulcify the mobility industry’s march to a greener, cleaner future! 

The Hydrogen Council and McKinsey & Company highlighted growth by 35% in hydrogen investments in 2023. Companies like ZeroAvia are developing tech to make planes fly on hydrogen and Airbus got involved as an investor in their latest funding round. Mitsubishi is investing $600m+ in a new green hydrogen production facility in the Netherlands. Shipyards in Norway are building hydrogen powered ferries right now. There was even an Alpine Alpenglow Hy4 running on hydrogen at Le Mans this year!

Hydrogen as a means of propulsion in mobility is a bit like Ferrari in the 2024 F1 World Championship. OK, they haven’t won anything in a while, but they are gaining momentum and I expect them to be winning very soon.

An outside chance? Synthetic fuels…

In 2026, all F1 cars will run on ‘100% sustainable’ synthetic fuel (sometimes also called e-fuel). For a sport that has been at the forefront of automotive innovation for decades, this is a big statement of intent.

Porsche is leading the way in synthetic fuel development and implantation. They started what appears to be a very successful pilot in synthetic fuel production in Chile in late 2022, that is now producing some 130,000 litres per year. Even more impressively, post-pilot, Porsche is expecting this plant to scale up and be able to produce 55 million litres a year by the middle of this decade!

The big problem with synthetic fuel is the cost. Estimations today range between £200 and £2,000 to fill up your car with synthetic fuel! Projections are that even in 2050, synthetic fuels will be 30% more expensive than hydrogen.

There are currently more than 1.3 billion vehicles with combustion engines worldwide so the appeal of keeping these on the road in an environmentally friendly way by running them on synthetic fuel is obviously hugely appealing.

Which leads me to conclude that, a bit like the outside chance synthetic fuels has of powering your car, plane or train in 2030, I think McLaren has a similar kind of chance of winning the F1 2024 constructors world championship. I am not betting against the combined might of global mobility and energy businesses, making synthetic fuel more cost effective to the consumer. I am also not betting against McLaren, the third most successful constructor in all F1 history, especially with that powerful driver combination that is Lando and Oscar! With 15 races to go, they are only 89 points behind…

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