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“Imagine you have an electric car with a 50 kWh battery, plus an internal combustion engine as a range extender – you’ll only be able to do 20 minutes of Dakar.”

While electric cars are set to usurp internal combustion-powered cars in the coming years, racing cars are proving an entirely different proposition.

As such, British-based motorsport experts Prodrive revealed last month that the company had created ECOpower, a new sustainable petrol which produces 80% less greenhouse gas emissions than regular fuel. Auto Futures spoke to Arthur Shaw, Prodrive’s head of engine development to find out more.

“Prodrive is a motorsport organization,” says Shaw. “We manufacture racing cars for different series and we are obviously very aware of the changing market and new technologies for powertrains coming onto the market, and the changing focus of manufacturers towards different technologies to provide more sustainable vehicles.”

“EV is the main focus for the government in terms of personal road transport,” Shaw continues, “but most of our projects, such as GT racing, Dakar, or endurance series require large amounts of power for many hours of running and EV technology is not in a place yet to provide the required level of power for the required level of time.”

Prodrive Hunter Testing 2

But let’s back up a bit – Prodrive is the world’s most successful multi-disciplined motorsport business. It has won six FIA World Rally Championships – working with drivers including Colin McRae, Richard Burns, and Petter Solberg. It also has six FIA World Sportscar titles, as well as five Le Mans wins – the most challenging sportscar race in the world. Add to this four British Touring titles and almost a decade’s worth of experience in Formula 1. 

Clearly then, Shaw and his colleagues know their stuff.

The development work on the petrol started back in January, Shaw explains.

“To be honest, when we into it, we were sort of feeling our way through it. There’s a lot of talk out there about what a sustainable fuel is, what it’s made up of and the different technologies that can be used to create a fossil-free alternative to provide a genuine greenhouse gas saving.”

“We looked into e-fuels, which are created from carbon capture technology, and also at generation two biofuels, which are created from waste biomass as opposed to first-generation biofuels which are based on planting sugarcane – which isn’t very sustainable. With generation 2, the waste is already being created, so it seems like a reasonable solution.”

“Then we came across Coryton Advanced Fuels,” Shaw says. “We didn’t want a partner that was just peddling a brand, with large claims on sustainability – we wanted a technical partner with who we could develop a product for our needs.”

Coryton, based just south of Basildon, was founded in 2010 and has a range of experience in developing sustainable fuels. The company had previous experience in motorsport, as well as in the aviation, marine, and commercial vehicle sectors. 

“They seemed like the most credible for us in terms of their scientific ability,” says Shaw. “They’re a good match for us, they’re able to move quickly and they’re good at rapid deployment.”

Of course, biomass-based fuels are nothing new – they’ve been talked about for well over a decade. However, Prodrive’s requirements were quite different. Not only did the fuel have to work as a “drop-in” solution but it also had to adhere to strict FIA guidelines and work in the gruelling conditions of the Dakar rally – held this year across a fortnight in the Saudi Arabian desert.

“I think we did an Aston Martin GT3 car back ten years ago,” says Shaw, “that used an E75 fuel which was mainly ethanol. But that’s got downsides in the volume we need to run, the chemical ratio, and there were loads of problems with fuel system components. For the new project, we wanted a genuine drop-in solution that replaces gasoline.”

Shaw explains that, for all racing series, including Dakar, the FIA has created reference fuels that can be used in order to keep a level playing field between the competitors. 

“The FIA has added an appendix to the appendix J fuel regs to open up the parameters to allow certain properties to be expanded to allow sustainable fuels to meet the performance of normal gasoline race fuel,” says Shaw. 

Prodrive Hunter Testing

“The oxygen content can be higher than normal race fuel,” he continues, “and it has slightly higher ethanol content.”

But, of course, the crux of any sustainable fuel is whether it is, in fact, sustainable. Prodrive quoted an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions but, is it all just hot air?

“The tailpipe emissions are largely the same as gasoline,” says Shaw. “It’s more to do with the production of the fuel not releasing new carbons into the atmosphere. Obviously, if you’re recycling carbon using waste products, then it’s carbon that already exists in our environment. Whereas, if you dig it out of the ground, you’re adding carbon to the environment. It’s a sort of short-term recycling of carbon rather than adding more.”

Shaw explains that the savings are “calculated on the RED-II directive from the EU. It’s a recognised standard and it puts some credibility behind our numbers. The fuels that say they are 100% sustainable, they’re not true.”

“We can stand behind the 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

However, this begs the question – why don’t we all switch to generation 2 biofuels if the savings are that great with no discernible downsides?

“We think that we’re two or three years away from getting any sensible quantities that are useful,” Shaw explains, “This fuel is a demonstration of what’s possible at the moment and where the technology is going.

“For our entire program until the end of Dakar, we’re using 40,000 litres of fuel including testing and two race events prior to Dakar. Producing that amount is no particular issue and you can make it in large quantities already. If you scale it up for road use, the price could come down to the equivalent of about a litre of 98 octane.”

But are Prodrive and Coryon simply kicking the can down the road? On the eve of the COP26 climate summit, should companies really be investing resources into technologies that might soon be banned by central governments?

“What we’re going to find is that anything that requires high levels of energy for a sustained period of time, it’s going to be using a blend of technologies,” Shaw says. 

“If you look at the pure energy in a 50 kWh battery, which weighs about 400 kilos, that’s 20 minutes of running at full power. So you really are reliant on ICE engines to give you the energy to recharge that battery. We see sustainable fuels as being an integral part of the future because there’s no point in using EVs that still rely on fossil fuels, it doesn’t make much sense.”

“Is this fuel the end of the road for sustainable technology? Absolutely not – but it certainly complements them.”

While the intricacies of a sustainable fuel developed for motorsport might seem arcane and, to some, irrelevant to the wider discussions around EVs and climate change, it’s clear that the switch to more sustainable transport will not happen overnight – whether in the sands of Saudia Arabia or on Sunset Boulevard. 

Developing sustainable fuels with reduced greenhouse gas emissions might be the best way to reduce our overall output during the intervening period. 

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