Fuel of the Future?

Story by David Booth//
March 21 2023

Some motorcycle manufacturers are finally saying out loud what many have silently thought for some time: For full-sized motorcycles, batteries will not be the near-term future. Triumph’s Steve Sargent recently cautioned the entire industry to understand both “the capabilities and also the limitations” of electric motorcycles, telling Crash.net that “The thing that drives me a little bit crazy is all of these start-up companies who come out and say ‘we’ve got an electric motorcycle that will do 300 km [on a single charge]’. Unless you’ve reinvented the laws of physics and chemistry, that’s not going to happen.”

Nor is Triumph the only one questioning whether motorcycling’s zero-emission future will be completely battery-powered. KTM’s motorsports director, Pit Beirer, was recently quoted as saying that batteries are not the “near-future” of motorcycles. While he did say that KTM does have a “clear commitment” to replacing smaller engines — like 100-cc commuters — he said “We see still the combustion engine as the solution in the near future. We don’t see that the technology is on the table at the moment to transfer mass production bikes into something like battery [powered] motorcycles.”

The problem is weight. As The Last Word has detailed, getting an electric motorcycle to the same power-to-weight ratio as a fossil-fueled superbike will require improvements in energy density beyond even what solid-state batteries — or indeed any other chemistry envisaged for the future — can hope to accomplish. An electric adventure bike with the range of a typical fossil-fueled motorcycle would probably weigh over 800 pounds. Nor are the swappable batteries promised for scooters a solution. They’re far too small to power a full-sized motorcycle and anything with enough energy to fuel a big bike would be too heavy to swap.

So, what is in motorcycling’s zero-emissions future?

Sustainable fuels; fuels that, by their nature or origin, reduce or replace the carbon emitted from piston engines. The most obvious are biofuels. Indeed, Triumph’s Sargent says that the company’s 765-cc Moto2 race engines might be running on E40 as soon as 2024 and could move to E100 by 2027. However, while moving to ethanol would reduce carbon emissions, it would not eradicate CO2 from motorcycle exhaust. Said ethanol would also put an incredible strain on the agriculture industry, an already controversial issue. As a short-term solution for new bikes, biofuels show some promise; as a long-term alternative for all motorcycles, not so much.

Another possibility for greener fuel is hydrogen. Although best known — and most efficiently used — in fuel cells, hydrogen can be used to power internal combustion engines. Doing so eliminates carbon emissions and what pollutants remain — like NOx — are easily contained. In other words, nothing much bad comes out the tailpipe. And converting gas engines to hydrogen is a known technology: BMW developed a piston-powered Hydrogen 7 sedan back in 2005 — this author drove it — and Toyota is currently campaigning a hydrogen-fueled 1.5L turbocharged inline three in Japan’s Super Taikyu Series racing series.

Hydrogen-powered piston engines’ big bugaboo is that they are not very efficient. While a fuel cell-powered vehicle can easily exceed a BEV’s range, an ICE-powered car fueled by H2 is limited in range. In other words, a hydrogen-powered Kawasaki H2 — they’ve been working on such an animal — might be lucky to eke out 125 km of range. While that’s not good, it would only take a couple of minutes to refuel, not the eons EVs require. Nor is there a hydrogen refueling network, though truck companies are looking to build their own chain of hydrogen stations much as Tesla did with Superchargers.

By far the most promising sustainable fuel available is synthetic gasoline. Essentially, water is electrolyzed into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, carbon is captured from the air and then all three are combined to form gasoline. Although the engine would still emit greenhouse gasses, all the CO2 emitted would have been previously taken from the atmosphere. As long as the energy used in the electrolysis and carbon capture processes is “green,” the result would be net zero internal combustion.

That’s exactly what Porsche is doing in Punta Arenas. Using the hostile climatic conditions of the southernmost tip of Chile, the company’s pilot plant is powered by zero-emission windmills. Currently, the project is scheduled to only produce 130,000 litres of fuel, but eventually, Porsche says, it will make enough to power all new 911s.

Synthetic gasoline would be an ideal solution save for two issues. First, it is energy intensive to electrolyze water and capture carbon. That will make synthetic gas expensive. How expensive? Though uncompetitive now, optimistic projections say pricing could eventually get down to two bucks a litre…. Without taxes.

And that brings us to syngas’ second problem: governments. If seen as a legitimate zero-emission alternative and left untaxed, syngas has a real chance. Two bucks, after all, is not much more expensive than what we are currently paying. If bureaucrats ignore the emissions-reducing evidence and tax it as regular gas, however, that would likely price it out of the realm of anyone other than supercar pilots and rich classic bike owners.

Those who believe that batteries are our only salvation are, of course, against such a tax break. On the other hand, providing a net-zero solution for the millions of cars that will be on the road long after new internal combustion cars are banned would seem a no-brainer. The biggest problem is that no one ever accused politicians — or, for that matter, environmentalists — of being smart.


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