Climate Neutral

Porsche’s betting big on a new generation of synthetic fuels in Chile.

Photo: Climate Neutral 1
May 18, 2023

The Panamera 4S Sport Turismo is one of the best touring cars on the planet right now. Comfortable and quiet when the road is long, quick and engaging when the asphalt starts to wind, it’s a great-looking, great-driving single car solution. But, even in its E-Hybrid plug-in form you won’t get far before good ol’ internal combustion rears its emissions-spewing head.

Today, that’s not a big deal. Gasoline, though pricier every day, is still affordable and easily found. But, fast-forward a little over a decade, when legislation starts banning the sale of non-electric cars, and you can begin to see how Porsche’s enviable legacy of classic cars might start to feel more like a burden. That’s partly why Porsche has spent $75 million to build a prototype factory in southern Chile, where wind is being turned into fuel. I headed down—way down—to test it out.

Tech Brief

We’ll start with the car, though these numbers should sound familiar. I was given the key to a Panamera 4S Sport Turismo coated in Amethyst Metallic over black leather, well appointed with Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC) Sport and the Sport Chrono Package, rear-axle steering, and even Porsche Ceramic Composite Brakes (PCCBs). Total pricing on this German-spec car: 183,386 Euros, or $197,403. In 4S trim, the Panamera makes 443 horsepower from a 2.9-liter, twin-turbocharged V6. At least, it does when burning gasoline, and that’s what it makes when burning e-fuel, too.

E-fuel is an umbrella term for synthetic fuels that come from something other than crude oil. The trend these days is to generate them using renewable energy, and that’s exactly what’s happening in Chile. Porsche partnered with HIF Global, a Houston, Texas-based company focused on developing alternate fuels, to build this prototype plant. The facility’s most notable feature, easily visible when you’re a few of miles away, is a 3.4-megawatt wind turbine that spins in a calm, metronomic way despite Chile’s wildly turbulent winds. This area, just outside of Punta Arenas in southern Chile, is one of the windiest on the planet, with over 6,000 hours of usable wind a year.

Photo: Climate Neutral 2

The power from that turbine drives a process called electrolysis, which creates hydrogen by splitting water into its constituent parts: hydrogen and oxygen. Right now, at HIF’s plant in Chile, the oxygen is simply vented back to the atmosphere, but in the future the plan is to capture and use or sell it. The hydrogen, meanwhile, heads on down a pipe for further processing.

Now, hydrogen itself is a great fuel source. Run it through a fuel cell and you’ve got reliable, emissions-free electricity. But, it won’t do an unmodified Panamera much good. To turn the stuff into burnable gasoline, that hydrogen is mixed with carbon dioxide (CO2) through a process developed in the 1970s. Called synthesis, many different fuel types can be generated through this process. Still, the resulting product out of the end of the Chilean plant is 93-octane gasoline, chemically identical to the fuel that comes out of an oil refinery.

Right now, that CO2 comes from a big tank purchased from global supplier Linde. But, in the not-too-distant future, even the CO2 will be pulled from the air, meaning Porsche’s e-fuel will be almost entirely emissions neutral. How? When that fuel is burned, it gives off carbon dioxide, just like regular gasoline. But, since that CO2 came out of the atmosphere in the first place, it’s basically just a round-trip, with zero impact on the environment except for the consumption of some water in Chile and the emission of trace amounts of nitrogen oxides.

In other words, this is not only a solution to ensure that classic Porsches still have something to burn for a long, long time, but it’s also a way to make them effectively emissions-free.

Photo: Climate Neutral 3

The Drive

I’ve been reading press releases about e-fuels for years now, highfalutin praise for a hypothetical solution to all of our legacy, internal combustion woes. But a trip to Chile marked my first opportunity to sample the stuff. No, I didn’t drink any. I did smell it, though, and it carries a bouquet just like the real thing, having the same not-unpleasant but also unsavory impact on your olfactory receptors. It has the odor of typical high-test, and while it’s short of the sickly sweet smell of race gas, such higher-octane fuels are possible with further refinement.

Not only did I smell it, I pumped it, too. Porsche wanted to be sure that I was sure that the liquid sloshing around in the Panamera’s 23.7-gallon tank was fuel of a non-fossil variety, so I filled the tank myself. Well, not quite. I was allocated precisely 40 liters (10.6 gallons) for my testing, about half a tank of the impossibly expensive gas.

That was plenty enough fuel for a day of cruising through the most unreal scenery I’ve ever seen. I’ve driven around the mightiest fjords in Norway, battled a summertime snowstorm to visit New Zealand’s iconic Milford Sound, and hiked every corner of Iceland. Still, none of that prepared me for the majesty springing up all around me in Chile. It started with an idle, two-and-a-half-hour drive north from the factory towards Torres del Paine National Park, distant snowy peaks slowly rising above the horizon as I threaded my way up the coast along Chile’s narrow Route 9.

This stretch of asphalt was draped across some particularly flat terrain, and so I didn’t challenge the Panamera’s handling characteristics much on that initial drone. Instead, I set the adaptive air suspension on comfort, settled back into the 18-way Adaptive Sports seats, and tried to avoid getting blown off the road in one of the country’s brutal cross-winds. Before long, I’d completely forgotten that there was anything special sloshing around in the fuel tank.

Photo: Climate Neutral 4

The road cuts through expansive pastures dotted with some of the stoutest cattle on the planet, built low and wide, presumably to ensure they stay upright amid the turbulent winds. But there’s no shortage of rarer fauna to be seen, too, including guanaco, which are like mini llamas, and rhea, which are like mini ostriches. Both are adorable, and given South America’s penchant for meat, it should be no surprise that both were on the menu at that night’s stopover in Puerto Natales.

I was up early the next morning for a loop of Torres del Paine, a glorious, sunny day that I would later learn is completely out of character for this part of the world. The epic granite spires that give this park its name stood proud, impossibly clear ahead, a tempting distraction that constantly lured my eye away from where it needed to be: on the road.

Why? Because that road started off heavily potholed and only got worse from there. The park service had gone through with asphalt patches and graders in the weeks before our arrival, but a massive rainstorm more than wiped out all their hard work. The resulting driving surface would have been better suited for an overland-modded Cayenne or, indeed, a 992 Dakar than a Panamera on 21-inch Turbo Design wheels.

Somehow, I managed not to bend any of those rims or rupture my tires, a fate that sadly befell a fair few of my colleagues from other publications. Despite its prodigious dimensions, the Panamera was great for the asphalt bits, gliding through the turns and dancing between the potholes. When the asphalt ended and the rough, washboard-like gravel began, I lifted the suspension height and lowered my speed.

Photo: Climate Neutral 5

I won’t lie: The Panamera isn’t exactly suited for this kind of abuse, but it took it well, dancing and bouncing over the surface while always feeling in control. Though the potholes here were less aggressive than those on the asphalt, they were still numerous enough to keep me from pushing into any gravel-flinging, tail-out antics through the many blind curves.

But at the end of the day, I still felt fresh and fine, and never once did this 16.6-foot-long limousine touch down. Porsche doesn’t even publish approach or breakover angles for the Panamera, but whatever they are, they are adequate for these rough roads.

And the e-fuels? I had to keep reminding myself about them. The car exhibited no indications that it was burning anything other than regular dino juice. Its exhaust note sounded exactly the same, the turbo lag and throttle characteristics were exactly the same, and while it’d take a more controlled test environment to really comment on fuel consumption, I have to imagine that, too, would be unaffected.

Porsche’s experts even told me that the fuel has the same properties when it comes to storage and use, so no special drums or cans are required, neither fuel lines nor pumps will be affected. In fact, rather than setting up special pumps to sell this stuff in the future, Marcos Marques, manager for Porsche’s e-fuels project, speculated that at some point it could simply start getting blended into existing fuel supplies and pumped right out along with the original fuels.

In this way, rather than making a hard transition, e-fuels could help to reduce the emissions of traditional gasoline, in time phasing them out as supply increases. But, it’s going to take a long time for that. Despite the fact that the ultimate ingredients for Porsche’s e-fuels will come straight out of thin air, that massive up-front investment will require an awful lot of gasoline to offset.

The Verdict

So e-fuel is the real deal. The tech works. The more I think about it, the more remarkable it is. But it’s going to take more than one prototype plant pumping out a planned 17 million gallons of fuel every year to really have an impact on, well, anything. For perspective, the U.S. alone consumes approximately 370 million gallons of gas…every day.

Again, though, this is just a prototype. HIF Global has plans for a second, far larger plant just up the road in Chile. They’re also working on another in Texas and a third in Tasmania, with an estimated combined output of 6.3 million gallons per day, or 2.3 billion gallons per year (the U.S. consumes about 135 billion gallons yearly). That might just be enough to start shaking things up a bit.

It’s worth pointing out that Porsche only has a controlling interest in this first prototype plant, meaning it will have access only to that very limited initial supply. Soon, this fancy fuel will power the cars that run at its various international Experience Centers. Down the road, maybe e-fuels become commonplace. They’ll probably never usher us back to the glory days of truly cheap gas, but the mere existence of a renewable gasoline should help car enthusiasts sleep a little better at night.

Also from Issue 301

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  • 1974 911 RSR Tribute
  • 550 Spyder #0069
  • 1953 Pre-A 356
  • Market Update: 924/944/968 & 928
  • Glöckler-Porsches
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