For the global automotive industry, emissions-free motoring is the future. Mandates, regulations, and looming deadlines all point to an end to our fossil-fueled, carbon-spewing ways. Battery-electric vehicles look like the chosen short-term solution, with hydrogen fuel cells holding some promise a little further down the road. But no new-car future technology can solve one very big problem: every car that’s on the road today.

Requiring all new cars to meet some sort of benchmark for environmental sensibility is a positive step, but that won’t do much good for the roughly 1.4 billion old cars still being driven. The average age of a car today is 12 years—so even if the 2035 emissions-free regulations in many countries and regions come to pass, it’ll be at least another decade before the majority of cars stop emitting carbon and other pollutants.

That’s an even more significant problem for manufacturers with a strong legacy of desirable models that fight depreciation. Porsche is very much one of those brands. Values of classic Porsches have skyrocketed over the past decade, a trend that’s made the company’s new product all the more desirable. No wonder, then, that Porsche is working to ensure those historic cars, many more than 50 years old, still have a long future ahead of them—not just as museum-pieces but as working, driveable icons.

Photograph: Porsche

Porsche has made a $100 million investment in e-fuels, with $75 million going to HIF Global, a Texas-based company specialized in producing next-generation fuels. HIF has developed a prototype plant to produce a new type of gasoline that works exactly like the traditional fuels those cars were designed to burn. The big difference? E-fuels come out of the air. The Chilean air, to be specific. The prototype plant is called Haru Oni, situated just north of Punta Arenas. It’s one of the most picturesque places on the planet. It’s also one of the windiest, which is key for this process. 

Traditional gasoline is a product of oil refinement. Crude oil is pumped out of the ground and ferried to a refinery, where it is split and processed and evaporated to form everything from kerosene to paraffin. Often, unwanted byproducts such as excess natural gas are simply burned, putting CO2 into the atmosphere before gasoline even hits the pump.

Identical to Pump Petrol

Photograph: Porsche

E-fuels instead come out of the atmosphere. It starts with hydrolysis, the process of creating hydrogen from water and electricity. In the case of the Haru Oni plant, the electricity comes from a single wind turbine that generates 3.4-megawatts. 

Electrolysis takes that electricity to generate pure, green hydrogen from water, hydrogen that could be used to power a fuel-cell-powered car. However, to make it suitable for use in traditional, internal combustion machines, it requires a little extra work. Carbon is extracted from the air in the form of CO2 and combined with the hydrogen in a process called synthesis. 

The result is a burnable fuel that, as far as your car is concerned, is indistinguishable from the real stuff. “The engine is stupid,” Marcos Marques, project manager of e-fuels at Porsche, tells me, himself a former ICE guy, designing the things at Porsche and Audi before taking on his current role. 

The e-fuel from HIF’s factory is chemically identical to 93 octane petrol at the pump. Porsches, and any other cars for that matter, will be able to run on it without issue. But, crucially, when burned, e-fuels give back only the carbon that was already pulled from the air, releasing energy captured from wind power. 

On the surface there is no environmental impact at all; it’s emissions-neutral. But surely that’s too good to be true? I ask Marques about the local impact. He says there are only three byproducts from the e-fuels refining process. The first is oxygen, which for now is vented but could be sold for industrial use. The second is water, which is sent straight to the local water treatment plant. And finally there’s liquified petroleum gas, or LPG, which is captured and sold, presently, but could in the future be used as an energy source for the plant.

There’s still the question of distribution, however. Right now that will entail loading these fuels onto some sort of a tanker, which itself probably burns fossil fuels—but apparently Porsche has plans to make those emissions-free as well, or at least emissions-neutral. 

A Drop in the Ocean

With such a large potential global market, Porsche naturally isn’t the only player when it comes to e-fuels. This year, Norsk starts the construction of its first e-fuel plant in Mosjøen, Norway, 12 hours’ drive north from Oslo. Norsk claims it will provide 12.5 million liters of renewable fuel each year by the end of 2024. 

By 2026, the Mosjøen plant will supposedly reach full capacity and double production volume to 25 million liters annually. At that stage, Norsk plans to build a plant with a production capacity of 100 million liters every year until 2029. The company says that each one of these “full-size” plants would effectively cut the flight emissions of the five most frequently serviced flight routes within Norway by 50 percent.

Photograph: Tim Stevens

In comparison, the official output of the HIF/Porsche plant in Chile is expected to be 55 million liters per year by the middle of the decade (though, in person, both HIF and Porsche representatives stated 66 million liters). Two years later the capacity is expected to be 550 million liters, so Porsche claims. HIF is also working on plans for a bigger factory in Chile, plus others in Tasmania and Texas. The ultimate goal is 6.3 million gallons of production per day.

However, before we get carried away, the UK alone consumed a total of 46.5 billion liters of petrol and diesel road fuel in 2019. In the US, an average of 369 million gallons—that’s 1.4 billion liters—was consumed every single day in 2022. In comparison, these e-fuel numbers are tiny.

Still, significant production scale issues aside, it certainly sounds promising: A carbon-neutral fuel that your car can’t tell from the real thing. And, having handled and even smelled the stuff, I can assure you that I couldn’t tell the difference either. It’s even pumped into a car in a perfectly normal way, the only difference being the accuracy of the pump: a digital meter with precision down to the thousandth of a liter and mounted right on the handle. Accuracy is key when you’re talking about fuel that, for now at least, costs upwards of $40 a gallon. That definitely added a little extra pressure to the timeless game of trying to pump the perfect amount of gas. 

So, How Does E-Fuel Drive?

After topping up the tank on a completely unmodified 2022 Porsche Panamera 4S Sport Turismo, I headed out from the Haru Oni plant and into the Chilean wilderness. The car was a German-spec machine that still had its Autobahn-required speed limit stickers on the dashboard telling me not to exceed 240 kilometers an hour due to tire limitations. That would not be a concern.

Photograph: Tim Stevens

The paved roads in Chile are narrow and battered by gusts strong enough to make the most agile cars a handful at any speed. The winds are perfect for producing e-fuels—not ideal for driving. Later, when we get into the park and off of the paved roads, the wind is less of a threat than rocks and potholes. I made use of every millimeter offered by the Panamera’s lifting air suspension and managed to avoid breaking any rims, busting any tires, or running into a pair of pumas feasting on a poor guanaco on the side of the road.

I did, however, manage a quick sprint from 0 to 62 mph, plus plenty of other acceleration tests to see just what impact the fake fuel had on the Panamera’s performance. While sadly there was no time for formal, timed testing against a car running traditional fuel, I certainly couldn’t detect anything amiss in the way the car launched forward. The car accelerated just as it should, the turbos gained boost like usual, and everything even sounded exactly like other Panameras I’ve driven with the sport exhaust. Before long, I simply forgot about what was in the tank and got on with the drive.

It’s worth pointing out that Porsche is not doing any of this at the expense of creating truly emissions-free cars. It introduced the electric Taycan in 2019, and, last year, showed off the battery-powered GT4 ePerformance, a track-only EV rolling laboratory that will form the foundation for the company’s future customer racing efforts. I’ve been lucky enough to drive that thing and it is an absolute rocketship, a jolt to all the senses (including sound) so sharp it will convince the most ardent of EV haters that an electrified future isn’t going to be so bad. 

Porsche wants 80 percent of its cars to be electrified by 2030, and with an electric Macan coming in 2024, plus plug-in hybrids already out-selling their traditional counterparts in Europe, that goal looks achievable.

For Porsche, though, this e-fuel program is a nod to the classics, to the generations of drivers who prefer a generation of cars that were a little simpler (in some respects) than today’s machines. However, keeping those cars on the road is going to get more complex as time wears on, thanks to the usual classic car problems of rare parts and expensive servicing. But if, alongside its e-fuel competitors, Porsche’s Chilean experiment delivers on its promise—and if the enormous scaling issues can somehow be overcome—at least those owners won’t have to worry about where to get gas.