Synthetic hydrocarbon fuels ‘will remain a strong part of motor racing’ in the future, not least as the only form of sustainable fuel capable of enabling the same sense of high-octane entertainment and enjoyment that we’re used to.

That’s the view of Paddy Lowe, formerly the executive director of the Mercedes Formula One (F1) team and now Director (and co-founder) of Zero Petroleum.

Zero Petroleum is a new enterprise dedicated to the production of ‘net-zero’ petroleum-based products. The company is the brainchild of Lowe and his business partner Professor Nilay Shah, Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College.

They believe society has gained immeasurably from the unique advantages of hydrocarbons, and the vision now at Zero Petroleum is to be a prime constructor of a fully circular and carbon-neutral supply at scale.

Lowe left F1 two years ago after a career spanning more than 30 years, including two separate spells at the Williams team, 20 years as a key technical figure at the McLaren F1 team, and of course his years at the all-conquering Mercedes F1 team.

Together, he and Shah have been working on a synthetic fuel at Zero Petroleum for over a year now, the process behind which is synthesis through the recycling of water and carbon dioxide, using renewable energy such as green hydrogen.

It’s an age-old science proven in photosynthesis and the engineering feats of previous decades – and Zero Petroleum believes synthetic hydrocarbon fuels could hold the key to near-term decarbonisation, as well as to maintaining the same energy, entertainment and spirit of motorsport long into the future.

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“With motorsport the clue is in the name – it’s all about motors, and it’s also a form of entertainment at the end of the day. It serves no objective or useful function in the world, but we’re all human beings and we live to enjoy life and entertainment – and sport – is part of that,” Lowe enthused during an exclusive webinar-interview with gasworld.

“In that context, we have Formula E, which is an electric racing series, but I think it’s increasingly recognised that petroleum fuels are a necessary part of this equation because of the energy density of future, entertaining sport.”

“We believe that synthetic fuels will remain a strong part of motor racing, and that extends to automotive more generally too.”

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Lowe was keen to point out that there is certainly a place for electric racing series, as well as vehicles fuelled by hydrogen and related technologies.

This is currently the case with both the aforementioned Formula E series and the newly inaugurated Extreme E series, for example, a hybrid, FIA-sanctioned international off-road racing competition that uses spec electric SUVs to race in remote parts of the world, such as the Amazon rainforest or the Arctic.

Former F1 World Champion Nico Rosberg’s own team – Rosberg X Racing – has triumphed in the first two rounds of the Extreme E series this year. Fellow F1 World Champions Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton also have their own teams in the category.

Lowe is also supportive of the movement towards battery-electric powertrains in the wider public sphere, acknowledging they have a central role to play – but believes there is both logic and a very pragmatic argument for synthetic hydrocarbon fuels that can enable us all to maintain the kind of lives we are used to.

“The move to electric vehicles is the right thing and we’re fully supportive of that at Zero Petroleum,” he affirmed, “it’s the most efficient and these are vehicles that are not driven to the limits of performance and so, it doesn’t matter if they’re a little overweight compared to a gasoline or diesel equivalent; it’s the energy efficiency that matters most.”

“But when you reach the top end of that sector, with specialist cars and supercars, whether we like it or not – and I certainly know people that consider such things excessive and wasteful – we live in a world where we can’t tell people what to do across the whole planet, and we have to recognise that people do, in many cases, what they want to do.”

“So, we need to support that with good engineering that creates renewable and sustainable solutions around people’s demands.”

Zero Petroleum already has a tangible product to showcase, as Lowe demonstrated on camera during our interview.

“At the top end of the automotive market, we have very extreme performance cars that run privately, there is a solution that’s ready for synthetic fuels and of course also with all the legacy of historic vehicles that will be around with collectors and for hundreds and hundreds of years to come, we can’t just say it’s old so it’s okay to use old fuels – there’s a responsibility in that sector to move to circular and sustainable fuels, which we can provide.”

“We actually already have a gasoline which can go straight into cars without further processing and it’s completely fossil-free.”

F1: Synthetics or hydrogen?

F1 is known to be strategising its future fuelling direction, ahead of an engine regulations change for 2025 and its responsibility to be more sustainable in the context of both costs an and its environmental impact.

The question put to Lowe by gasworld, then, was whether we will see synthetic fuels in the next generation of F1 engine.

“I think that most major motorsports will go the synthetic route, sooner or later,” he explained, measured and yet somehow effusive in his response at the same time. “I think we’ll have to see what that timeline looks like. There are a range of vested interests, and Formula One itself is a particularly complicated industry with a large range of stakeholders, often with very different objectives.”

“Whether F1 is the first – I know they’re talking about it – or whether it is another motorsport like a smaller and more independent series which are more nimble and able to embrace this technology and adopt it more quickly [is the question].”

“In my mind it’s absolutely the way to go, but not the only way to go. We’ve got these electric series already, and I think we will see an increasing presence of hydrogen in motorsport, there are already some declared, and we may even see Formula One go in a hydrogen direction.”

Lowe is visibly less convinced by the potential of hydrogen power in a motorsport category such as F1, largely due to the constraints in storage and efficiencies discussed earlier in our interview.

“It’s quite challenging, as you said earlier, when it comes to the volume and the weight, and that would perhaps work with some refuelling (re-introduction), but I think the refuelling is quite tricky at speed,” he said.

“One of the things to consider with all transport and vehicle applications is not just the weight of the vehicle of the energy on-board, but also the refuelling or recharging time.”

“If you consider an aeroplane, the time is takes to fill it with jet fuel, that’s a power rating if you put it in electrical terms – and what would be the power rating of that plug? When you go and do the numbers, it’s really scary. I think it’s the same when you look at a Formula One car to go to hydrogen – the flow rates are quite tricky. I think we will see a hydrogen solution, but we’ll definitely see synthetic petroleum solutions as well.”

Exclusive webinar

Paddy Lowe was speaking to gasworld in an exclusive webinar broadcast on gasworld TV on Friday 11thJune (2:30pm BST).

In a wide-ranging interview with Rob Cockerill, Lowe discusses synthetic petroleum, the scale-up of alternative fuels, policy and politics, fuels for the next generation of motorsport, and even his favourite races from his more than 30 years at the sharp end of F1.

For more information and how to watch the webinar, including on-demand access, visit www.gasworld.tv.