The chemistry behind F1’s sustainable fuel future · RaceFans

By 2026, fuel tanks of Formula 1 cars are set to be filled with 100% sustainably-sourced fuel. There are currently four companies supplying the 20-car grid, and more working with the world championship on its future fuel regulations.

Currently, ExxonMobil supplies Red Bull and AlphaTauri, with the latter sponsored by Mobil’s Polish trading partner PKN Orlen. Petronas products appear in all of the Mercedes-powered cars on the grid – despite two of those teams being sponsored by rival oil firms – while Alpine use fuel from BP subsidiary Castrol and all Ferrari-powered cars use Shell.

Aramco is the title sponsor of Aston Martin and the fuel supplier for the Formula 2 and Formula 3 championships this year with a “55% sustainable” fuel. It has worked closest with F1 on its sustainability target, and the feeder series are being used as testing ground to help them refine their technology and move closer to those goals.

By bringing more sustainable fuel to F1, there will be changes to the science behind the sport. Speaking to media including RaceFans at this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, F1’s chief technology officer Pat Symonds explained the technology behind their sustainable fuel plans.

Symonds began by explaining that the new fuels will, like the petrol currently used in F1, be hydrocarbon-based mixes. The key to a fuel being ‘sustainable’ is that its elements come from sustainable sources.

“Hydrogen-carbon is really the basis of it. And it’s this that we use to synthesise a sustainable fuel,” he explained. “Now, where you get the hydrogen from is reasonably obvious: electrolysis of water. It’s a well-known method of doing it, you apply electricity through water.

“Everyone knows water is H₂O. So you split off the hydrogen and the oxygen. So you then have your hydrogen which, if the electricity has come from renewable sources, is actually a green hydrogen. The carbon is much more interesting.”

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The way carbon will be sourced for fuel in F1 and its feeder series is, reckons Symonds, “going to start to contribute to the art and the science of what we can do” in making such technology more sustainable across all applications.

Symonds (right) has been working on new fuel for F1

“Nature is great at taking CO₂ out of the air, splitting out the carbon, using it to grow the plant or whatever, and releasing the oxygen. So we need to sort of synthesise that process. And we can do that using plants, using algae, direct air capture, which is a very emerging technology. Quite a difficult thing to do at scale.

“There are [production] plants that will take the carbon out of the air. But when we talk about climate change and we talk about the concentration of CO₂ in the air, we talk about 400 parts per million as being an awful lot of CO₂ in the air. If you express it another way, its 0.04%. So when you’re trying to extract that carbon from the air, you’re really dealing with a very, very small amount.”

By sourcing the carbon and hydrogen sustainably, the fuel can then be considered carbon neutral. Although for the end product to truly be considered worth of such a label, “all the manufacturing and the transport” has to be considered too. F1’s 2026 fossil fuel ban currently only applies to the cars racing on track.

“When you look at the total carbon footprint in F1 as a sport, our carbon footprint is just over a quarter of a million tonnes. And of that, the amount that’s represented by running our cars around the track is 0.7%. It really is very little indeed.”

But Symonds reckons a carbon-neutral future is as realistic for F1 as it is for road cars. “We get just as much power from [sustainable fuel] as we can from standard, fossil gasoline,” he says.

However fuel generation must not take over from food production, he notes. “Can the fuel be created from a combination of non-food bio sources, municipal waste, carbon capture? In fact, any way of getting the carbon and the hydrogen that doesn’t compete for land use – as some of the ‘generation one’ fuels did [is suitable],” explained Symonds.

“Our little strapline is that ‘you can make this fuel out of potato peelings, but not out of potatoes’. You don’t want to be competing with the food sources. And the regulations have been very carefully designed such that we can really promote different methods of producing these fuels.

“This is a very, very new technology and there are many different ways of producing the fuels and no one is yet sure exactly which is the best way. So we have written the rules very carefully to try and promote the competition to produce fuels in different manners, and yet at the same time not produce a fuel that will be a runaway for whoever does it best.”

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One example of the attention which has been paid to the rules is in a change to how the fuel consumption rate will be measured.

“We’re moving for 2026 [away] from regulating the mass of fuel that goes into the engine,” he said. “At the moment you can flow 100 kilograms an hour of fuel into the engine.

“From 2026 you can flow 3,000 megajoules of fuel an hour into the engine, which is around three quarters of the sort of energy content that we have at the moment. And of course the reason for that is that we increase the hybridisation, and we’ve got a lot more electrical power on the cars.”

Junior series are being used to develop fuels

Symonds admits that creating the new fuel in the first place is an energy-intensive process. “There’s a term that’s called EROI – energy return on investment – which is one of the fundamentals of this,” he explains.

“It’s not coincidence that we drill holes in the ground, take oil out and burn that oil. The human race has a habit of finding the best and cheapest way of doing things. And if you move away from that, you’re moving away from probably the cheapest way of doing things.

“But what we thought was the best way of doing it, we now realise wasn’t the best way of doing it. We didn’t understand global warming at the time when we started using a lot of oil for energy.”

He indicates the process by which the fuel is created uses around six times the energy contained in the fuel it produces.

“You are putting more energy in than you’re getting out from a kilogram of fuel. So from that kilogram of fuel where we expect to get sort of 43 megajoules of energy out, you are using maybe 240 or something to produce that fuel.

“But providing that that energy is renewable in itself, you’ve got to stage one of solving the problem. And like everything to do with carbon reduction in the atmosphere, everything relies on an abundance of renewable electricity. That is absolutely fundamental to our future.”

The direct carbon capture technique that F1 wants to use, and Aramco will use exclusively for its F2 fuel by 2027, “cuts out the middleman” in harnessing carbon but is still a technology in its formative stages.

“It reduces the time scale, because when we’re talking about biological carbon capture, there’s a timescale involved in it. How long does it take for a tree to grow or a plant to grow or algae to develop? With direct air capture of the carbon, it’s a very short-term thing. So it has a lot going for it, but at the moment the scalability is still to be proven.”

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Aramco chief technical officer counterpart Ahmad Al-Khowaiter said the fuel giant is are “big believers in carbon capture” as a meant of producing a less polluting fuel. “We actually announced a big project to capture nine million tonnes a year from industrial sources of CO₂ a few months back. That will be up and running by 2027.

Circuit atmosphere, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
F1’s current carbon footprint is around 250,000 tonnes per year

“But of course, the bigger challenge is capturing from the air. Today, the technology is still immature, but we see we are investing heavily in that area of direct capture. There is right now a number of projects that have been in Canada and Iceland and Switzerland. But there’s many, many technologies being developed as we speak to bring the cost of carbon capture down to more reasonable costs.”

Compared to the recent price of a barrel of Brent crude oil – around $83 (£70) – the cost of this still needs to fall a long way. “Today it’s $400 to $800 per tonne, which would translate to roughly $200 to $300 a barrel of oil, for example. Just to keep that in perspective. So that would be probably a very expensive fuel that’s based on that kind of carbon capture.”

However he says “the costs are coming down dramatically, as we saw in wind and solar” for direct carbon capture. “This technology, once it’s deployed, has a learning curve and we expect those costs to come down to much more reasonable and practical costs. The thing to understand, though, is that the energy comes from the hydrogen. It’s from the renewable energy. The CO₂, the carbon is a carrier in many ways. Because we’re bringing in basically low energy-carbon, whether it’s CO₂ or a waste biomass, this is a carbon that doesn’t have much energy, it’s a low energy state.

“The real value of adding the energy comes from the hydrogen, and the electrolysis based on renewable energy adds that energy into the carbon and gives you the fuel ultimately. So the cycle: we need the carbon to carry because it gives you that energy density. Think of the incredible energy density of hydrocarbons, which is really the useful aspect of it.”

Whether the energy in those hydrocarbons can be synthesised at scale, instead of just drawn from the ground and burnt, is the scientific challenge F1 has staked its future on.

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