How Formula 1 can fuel the fight against climate change

In November 2019 Formula 1 set out its plans to be net-zero carbon footprint by 2030. Part of that plan is to move all Formula 1 cars to 100% advanced sustainable by the 2030 deadline.  Writing in the recent issues of F1 Racing Pat Symonds, Chief Technical Officer at Formula 1, explains the science behind the headlines and how alternative fuels will make Formula 1 a greener sport.

The term ‘gas guzzling’ is synonymous with F1 in the eyes of the popular press and yet Chase Carey has often spoken on the subject of sustainability in F1.  Indeed at the recent Frankfurt motor show he not only stated that F1 had to become sustainable in its own right but also that F1 needed to promote sustainability.

On November 11th, Formula 1® has announced an ambitious sustainability plan to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030. Now sustainability is a far reaching subject but let us for now concentrate on the environmental issues.  Perhaps the biggest challenge facing engineers at present is how to avoid catastrophic climate change. As with most problems there is not a singular solution, indeed in this case there is not even a single cause.  Nevertheless transport in general is a contributor to the generation of greenhouse gasses and there is sufficient evidence in most people’s minds that these gasses are the cause of global warming. 

Within our sport, like any global enterprise, transport is inevitable.  Globalisation and the transport associated with it is fact and an atavistic reversion to a local economy is not an option.  Instead we must embrace the need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions and apply the same principles of high performance engineering to the problem that we do to making our cars go faster.

As well as the relevant engineering that may emanate from our sport we can do more in that our global following is a perfect way of sending the right messages. While we have been rather good at the former for many years we are woefully bad at the latter.

The road to net zero carbon emissions from transport is multivariate.  Electrification of road transport is a partial solution but it is not true however to call it zero emission. There are two reason for this. The first is that the electricity that is used to charge a battery electric vehicle (BEV) has to be generated and while renewable sources of generation are ever expanding there is still a carbon footprint associated with the production of electricity.  Currently in the UK this averages around 200 grams of CO2 per of electricity produced.  If we consider a typical C segment BEV like the eGolf, this is quoted to use 12.7 Kw.hrs of electricity per 100 kms and hence, ignoring any transmission and conversion losses, the generation of this electric power is responsible for the production of 25.4 grams of CO2 per kilometer.  This is impressive compared to the 2021 target for conventional vehicles of 95 grams but it is not zero.  Furthermore if a complete life cycle analysis is considered the additional 3.5 tonnes of CO2 generated in manufacturing the battery over and above the CO2 produced in the manufacture of a conventional Volkswagen Golf is equivalent to adding a further 35 grams of CO2 per km over a life of 100,000 kms.

None of this negates the value of electric vehicles, indeed their use in urban areas where they can displace emissions and hence improve urban air quality is to be applauded.  However there is also a very real place for plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV).  The F1 car is the ultimate PHEV but how should F1 proceed to act as a catalyst for change?  There are two fundamental things we can do and here we will examine how F1 can contribute to the solution of this vitally important problem.

In order to understand how we may move internal combustion engines to a lower CO2 position we need to understand that gasoline is essentially a compound made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms.  The oil from an oil well has carbon atoms that were deposited there millions of years ago and hence if we burn them they will combine with oxygen to produce CO2 that is essentially new to the planet.  Prior to its release in the process of combustion it had been locked up safely below ground, after combustion it joins the earth’s atmosphere.

There are however other methods of producing fuel that use much younger carbon and therefore, when considered over a period of a few years, do not add to the carbon budget.  We learn in elementary biology how plants take in CO2 and release oxygen.  The carbon is absorbed into their structure.  We can use this wonder of nature to our advantage as a way of stripping the CO2 out of the air and recycling the carbon for further use as a fuel.  Fermentation of the plant, or bio-mass as it is usually referred to, produces ethanol which is perfectly able to run an engine. 

Of course biomass is not the only source of carbon and one of the technology competitions of future years is the source of young carbon to produce synthetic fuels.  This could come from plants, algae, waste or even by directly capturing the carbon from the CO2 in the air and reusing it. 

So what is F1 doing?  2021 Technical Regulations prescribe a minimum of 10% of the fuel will comprise advanced sustainable ethanol.  This fuel must be second generation, in other words it must be produced from either a non-bio carbon capture and re-use or, if from a bio source must be obtained from non-food energy crops grown on marginal land unsuitable for food production.  Of course in addition waste products that have already fulfilled their food purpose can also be used.

Beyond this our ambition is to move to F1 cars running on 100% advanced sustainable fuel.  This paves the way to further novel fuels which are not only ultra-low carbon but may well be the forerunners of future fuels in transport fields other than light road vehicles.

F1 needs not just to embrace an environmental sustainability programme but to promote, using the undoubted persuasive power that it wields, the path to an ultra-low carbon economy.  In order to see how this may be done we need to expand a little on the fuel chemistry that we discussed earlier.

Many fuels are made of combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms.  One of the most simple comes from combining 4 hydrogen atoms with one of carbon to give CH4 a gas known as Methane.  Ethanol, the most common automotive bio-fuel, is made by combining 2 carbon atoms, 6 hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom to give C2H5OH.  Ethanol as a fuel has the advantage of being easy to make and therefore cheap but unfortunately does not have the energy content of gasoline.  For every litre of conventional fuel burned we would need to burn 1.5 litres of ethanol to get the same energy. However, accepting that these hydrocarbon fuels can be made from atoms, we can also make the basis of gasoline which is a substance known as iso-octane.  This is made from 8 carbon atoms and 18 hydrogen atoms – C8H18.  This would then form the basis of what is known as a ‘drop-in’ fuel meaning it could be used in an existing engine without requiring any modifications. It would still need some additives but these could be the similar to those currently added to conventional gasoline.  Synthetic fuel has a further advantage of not having some of the undesired elements, such as sulphur, in it.

While this may seem the perfect answer unfortunately it is much more difficult, and energy consuming, to make a drop-in fuel than a simple alcohol type fuel like ethanol.  Equally there are no plants or refineries in the world at the moment capable of making enough synthetic fuel, or e-fuel as it is sometimes called, to supply F1 let alone the larger automotive community.

Although alcohol fuels may not have high energy density they, along with other molecules such as Toluene (C7H8), they possess other advantages such as very high resistance to knock, an uncontrolled and violent ignition which is detrimental to both power and the very structure of the engine.

Let’s consider now the engine itself.  The laws of thermodynamics show that engine thermal efficiency, in other words its efficiency at converting chemical energy to mechanical energy, is a function of compression ratio.  This is the main reason that diesel engines are so efficient.  Current F1 engines run very high compression ratios but they are limited by knock.  The propensity of a given engine to knock depends on the fuel it is run on and gasoline, while good, is not the best in this respect. 

Tailored fuels however, made of course from advanced sustainable bio resources, matched to engines specifically designed to exploit the characteristics of the fuel could move us forward to the next steps of efficiency.  After all the easiest way of reducing our carbon footprint, and to reduce cost to the consumer, is to reduce the amount of fuel burned no matter what its source.

While much of the low hanging fruit of engine efficiency has already been harvested we need to set ambitious targets for the next generation of power units.  Just a few years ago 50% efficiency seemed a dream and yet F1 engines have achieved it.  When we consider the next F1 engine we need to define targets rather than technologies and the determination of achieving 60% efficiency is no longer a dream.

It is however ambitious and current technology will not get us there.  We need to think laterally, we need to go back to basics and see what technologies will allow us to run higher compression ratios and what will reduce the inevitable losses.  For example, should the engine be a two-stroke?  Turbocharging, direct injection and plasma ignition could allow a very efficient two-stroke to run with none of the inherent problems of past generation two-strokes.  More importantly a engine running on a synthetic ultra-low carbon fuel which possessed a very high octane rating could run at the sort of compression ratios that engines running on today’s gasolines could not begin to sustain.  Equally we may find that traditional poppet valves are no longer suitable as the clearance volume needed for them to open into the cylinder imposes some mechanical limitations on achievable compression ratios.

When considering future engine technologies we should also consider a full life cycle analysis of the power unit itself and the supporting energy source be it chemical or electrical.  We live in a rapidly evolving world and one in which industry must be powered by low carbon electricity.  Once we have that should we just be using to charge batteries that have some built in environmental problems and new infrastructure needs or should we instead be using that electricity to synthesis liquid hydrocarbon fuels?  I suspect he answer is that we need to follow both paths with full battery electric vehicles having a role in an urban environment and low or zero carbon fuelled, highly hybridised internal combustion engines powering non-urban light vehicles and all types of heavy vehicle.  When there is an abundance of zero carbon electricity this becomes an enabler for many other technologies.

F1 could play a huge role in this transition.  It has continually proven its ability to advance technology readiness levels from experimental to production and must do so again.  It also has the profile to engage the public in these technologies.  The difference this time is that it doesn’t have an option.  Failure to reduce CO2 emissions will leave the sport as a pariah with no place in modern society.

The next step needs to come with the next generation of power unit.  F1 must be the first series to run on 100% advanced sustainable fuels to demonstrate their effectiveness. The fuel and the engine must be designed in harmony and hybridisation and electrical systems must be taken to a new level.  When a full circular life cycle analysis is done, F1 must pave the way toward a true net zero carbon society in the transport arena.