By Graham Duxbury – There have been numerous changes to Formula One fuel regulations over the years, including restrictions on the use of chemical additives together with the introduction of rigorous testing and certification procedures to ensure compliance.

Graham Duxbury

Recently there has been a growing focus on renewable fuel technologies geared to reduce motorsport’s carbon footprint and promote sustainability.

Motorsport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), has set 2030 as a target for achieving organisational net-zero carbon emissions.

The deadline was announced in November 2019 following a year of collaborative research by the FIA, F1 management as well as the teams and race promoters. Renewable fuels will play a key role in achieving this goal.

The FIA’s emphasis on the environment stretches back to 1996, when it mandated unleaded fuel meeting the Euro 95 standard (pump fuel) for F1 cars.

In 2006 the FIA required F1 teams to use a standardised fuel blend provided by a single, designated fuel supplier. This regulation aimed to eliminate any potential advantages gained by teams developing their own, non-environmentally-friendly fuel blends.

F1 no longer supports a mandated supplier. In fact, there are now five different fuel companies supplying fuel to F1 teams.

Currently, the fuel regulation requires a minimum of 10% ethanol biofuel (E10 fuel), but in 2026 carbon-neutral fuels will have to be used in line with F1’s much-publicised Net Zero Carbon by 2030 plan which also includes slashing the use of single-use plastics and reviewing travel and freight logistics.

Pat Symonds, the FIA’s chief technical officer, is encouraging fuel companies to compete using their state-of-the-art technical and research resources in the quest to formulate a suitable sustainable fuel.

There are already several options on the table, including advanced biofuels, e-fuels and synthetic fuels.

One of the key challenges is ensuring that the fuels meet the F1’s stringent performance requirements.

Symonds says today’s 1.6-litre turbo V6 engines are highly optimised for the current fuel formula and any changes to the composition of a future fuel could have a significant impact on performance.

“As a result, developing a renewable ‘drop-in’ fuel that can match the performance of traditional fuels is a priority,” he stresses, noting that although the various fuel companies are taking different approaches, performance is very much top of mind.

Current research suggests that the most promising sustainable fuel could be produced with carbon capture from the atmosphere.

While such a fuel will require combustion and the release of carbon emissions, it is considered carbon-neutral because the carbon was first extracted from the atmosphere before it was made into a fuel.

There are other possibilities: “We’ve got people who believe that extracting the carbon from algae is the best way of doing it,” says Symonds. “And we’ve got some who are very strong on using municipal waste. Others suggest the use of food waste or forestry waste.”

Symonds emphasises that F1 does not want fuel companies to be competing with humans by turning food crops such as corn into ethanol, so the 2026 rules prevent teams from using “first-generation” crops.

Looking at the challenge from another perspective, the world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, is interested in low-carbon synthetic fuels, with “blue hydrogen” (decarbonised hydrogen) being high on its list of options. It is made from natural gas through a process called steam methane reforming (SMR).

According to industry experts, Aramco would produce this fuel using renewable electricity and CO2 that is captured either directly from the atmosphere or from industrial plant emissions.

Aramco maintains that the resulting fuel could be engineered to be chemically similar to conventional fuels, making it a practical solution not only for F1 but also to “decarbonise the wider automotive fleet while utilising existing infrastructures”.

The FIA supports this idea, hoping that renewable fuels will become a viable and sustainable option for the world’s internal combustion engines, which could see their life extended by a decade or two.

Symonds believes the decarbonisation of the transport sector will occur far quicker and be much cheaper if the carbon footprint of petrol could simply be eliminated, rather than forcing the world to replace 1.4 billion petrol-powered cars with new electric vehicles, along with the investment required for charging infrastructures.

“If you don’t have to alter your vehicle, you don’t have to alter your infrastructure,” he adds.