Thomas Koch, mechanical engineering professor and specialist in internal combustion engines, criticizes the EU decision on the possible combustion engine off. He warns of the consequences and explains how we could move around in an environmentally friendly and climate-neutral manner with hybrid drives and regenerative fuels – if only the political will were there. by Robert Horvath
Thomas Koch is head of the Institute for Piston Engines at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).
Mr. Koch, the EU has decided to ban combustion engines: From 2035, no new cars with combustion engines should be allowed to be sold. What do you make of it?
Koch: Of course I very much regret that, although I am convinced that the political situation needs to be sharpened again. From a scientific perspective in particular, the entire procedure is absolutely out of the question, even harmful to the environment. A different strategy is being pursued worldwide. Only in Europe this summer was there a political majority that managed to de facto ban the internal combustion engine by regulation, even though there are reasonable alternatives to fossil fuels.
What are the alternatives?
Koch: First of all, petrol and diesel vehicles will increasingly be hybridized over the next few years, i.e. they will also have an electric motor. I very much welcome this. In the next ten to fifteen years, we will then have almost exclusively hybrid technology on the road when it comes to new vehicles with combustion engines. What we will of course no longer be allowed to fill up with in the future is fossil fuel. We have to say goodbye to that.
How can this succeed?
Koch: We have to replace fossil fuels with CO2-neutral or low-CO2 fuels as quickly as possible. This is possible and can be implemented. We call the solution Re-Fuels: regenerative fuels. This includes both synthetically produced e-fuels and modern bio-fuels of the second and third generation.
Biofuels are controversial because they require arable land, which is then lacking for the cultivation of food.
Koch: That’s the terribly antiquated and inaccurate “food or fuel” discussion that only refers to outdated first-generation biofuels. We are talking here about second and third generation biofuels made from plant waste and biogenic waste products, leftover food and possible plastic waste. All of this can be processed into a fuel. It doesn’t matter to the engine whether it gets a traditional fossil fuel, an e-fuel or a bio-fuel. For him it makes no difference.
The advantage of biofuels is that the production facilities are already running at full speed, biomass is available in large quantities and the production processes are established. Both together, bio and e-fuels, can cover the total demand around 2033 to 2035. It is entirely up to the political will to reconcile environmental protection, social justice, economic interests and independence.
Cook: Absolutely. That’s what makes the world. China is doing it, Saudi Arabia is going this way, and America is going for it too. Only we in Europe prevent it as best we can.
And in the meantime?
Koch: If you fill up with petrol today, for example, you can choose between an E5 and an E10. So you can choose whether you have 90 percent or 95 percent fossil fuel in the tank. Logically, we need to reduce the fossil share to zero percent by the mid-2030s. The strategy that we are therefore proposing is to ambitiously increase the admixture rate. The policy requirements are indisputably low. The EU Commission and the EU Parliament have unanimously called for an incredibly low admixture rate of 2.2 percent for the year 2030, instead of pursuing ambitious environmental protection. This is backwards worldwide and obviously aims to prevent internal combustion engine hybrid drive systems from becoming environmentally friendly.
Why do you think Europe is doing this?
Koch: It is clear to technical experts that so-called climate and environmental protection unfortunately sometimes only serves as an argument to regulate or ban technologies, which seems rather arbitrary. Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the EU Commission, emphasizes that he is concerned with social transformation. For him, this also includes a changed mobility picture. And indeed, we sometimes have too much car-based mobility. We must continue to improve this. However, if technology proposals are made as to how CO2 savings would be possible on the basis of fuels, this will be prevented or made more difficult. Outside of Europe people are more pragmatic here. So it’s not about environmental protection or effective CO2 reduction.
What consequences will the combustion ban have for Germany and Europe?
Koch: First of all, this will primarily lead to social disadvantages. Vehicles are undeniably becoming more and more expensive, both to purchase and to maintain. The production of inexpensive, well-known small cars has already been or will soon be discontinued. Ultimately, rich people in particular will continue to be able to afford cars, while the broad masses of society will no longer be able to get an adequate vehicle. As a result, more and more people will no longer be able to afford automobile mobility. And many working people, especially in rural areas, just need the vehicle. By the way: In 2020 alone, the state received 60 billion euros in tax revenue from the combustion engine. This amount would be lost through a ban.
The automotive industry is Germany’s largest and most important economic sector. What consequences would a ban on combustion engines have for domestic companies and research?
Koch: That would result in a competitive disadvantage for the entire European economy, which would then affect both large corporations and, above all, medium-sized automotive suppliers, which would be significantly weakened. Of course, this also leads to the cessation of development activities and means a migration of companies and specialists; namely in the regions where the technology is not outlawed: China, Japan and the USA. That’s where the technology is developed. What follows is a dramatic and massive loss of know-how in Germany. We’ve had that for the past few years, and we’re in the process of giving up global market leadership. China has caught up with us in internal combustion engine technology, if not overtaken us in some areas. The Chinese are aiming to become the largest car engine manufacturer in the world and to supply Europe in the future. Chinese suppliers already have to be upgraded to ensure production in Germany. That’s a catastrophe.
More on the topic: The supply industry is in crisis – now the Mercedes star is a candidate for bankruptcy
Back to the EU debate: do you think that internal combustion engines are no longer an environmental problem?
Koch: In the case of classic emissions such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons, the contribution is so marginal that there is no reason to ban combustion engines, not even in cities. Let’s take nitrogen dioxide NO2 specifically. With only modern internal combustion engines, we would still have a nitrogen dioxide contribution of one to two micrograms per cubic meter of air on one of the busiest roads in the republic with 70,000 vehicles a day. For comparison: If you light candles on the birthday cake, you quickly get 500 micrograms per cubic meter, with a steak in the pan you get over 3000. The influence of modern combustion engines is marginal, it is negligible. And it’s the same with fine dust.
How about the CO2?
Koch: Every human being, every animal, exhales CO2, and every combustion process of hydrocarbons also produces CO2. The question is therefore, can I prevent the emissions of new CO2, as they result from the combustion of petroleum, by using a closed fuel cycle? What I am advocating is a fuel that first captures CO2 from the air before burning the carbon again, and then the CO2 fraction is released back into the atmosphere. This binding of air can be realized with plants in the case of bioFuels or by removing CO2 from the air in the case of eFuels. Then we have created a cycle and do not bring any new CO2 into the system. That is the idea behind the previously mentioned CO2-neutral re-fuels.
Her scientific specialty is the internal combustion engine. Are you an opponent of the electric car?
Koch: I’m not opposed to electric vehicles. There are applications that work perfectly electrically. The garbage truck that has to drive through residential areas at night, the local bus, the delivery truck that rolls from door to door, the small car for urban mobility concepts. This will soon work very well electrically. However, the exclusivity of this technology is the wrong way to go.
What can the combustion engine do that the e-car cannot or cannot yet do?
Koch: The modern combustion engine requires far fewer semiconductor products. The combustion engine is significantly cheaper in the entire manufacturing process. He can fall back on established recycling processes. Overall, the combustion engine is more resilient when it comes to supplier processes. Hybrids require significantly smaller batteries than purely electric vehicles and are therefore lighter. Instead of battery sizes between 60 and 100 kilowatt hours, 0.5 to 5 kilowatt hours are sufficient for a combustion hybrid. This results in less dependency on expensive raw materials. He has a much greater range. It has higher performance over long distances. The combustion engine can be refueled in two minutes for 1000 km. Above all, in crisis situations, in storms or emergencies such as a power failure, it is ready for operation again with a single canister of fuel. And with the combustion engine, we have global market leadership, which we are about to give up. I would also like to emphasize once again that internal combustion engine drive technology is taxed extremely heavily. Nevertheless, in terms of costs, it is fully competitive with the highly subsidized technology of the e-car.
The topic should be re-evaluated and discussed in the EU by 2026 at the latest. Do you expect a change of course?
Koch: I spoke to members of the European Parliament. They assess the situation in such a way that the vote for this summer would probably turn out differently today. That means, in my opinion, it’s not all over yet. This is also emphasized by the French Commissioner Breton, who points out the need for a review, ideally before 2026. And my gut feeling is that everyone in politics knows that the strategy is not flying, that there will be massive difficulties, at the latest when the supplier companies cut even more jobs and close locations, when cars become significantly more expensive and the dependency of the supply chains becomes more and more dramatic . The crucial question is whether society is realizing all this at a time when it can still react? Or have the companies already been irreversibly destroyed, migrated, become insolvent or have been bought up by Turkish or Chinese interested parties.
Do you think it’s already too late?
Cook: It’s almost there. We still have a year or two if things go on like this. Then the crucial development departments will be closed. The network of suppliers, development service providers, training centers and universities, this network is fragile. Indeed, I have the impression that destroying this precious jewel is almost malicious intent.
You teach at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Do young people still come to your lectures and are interested in combustion engines?
I have that in the lecture. Of course, the field is not exactly enjoying a tailwind at the moment. The students present are very interested in the subject.
Do you also have students who are involved with Fridays for Future or with the last generation?
Cook: I would be happy about that. We research sustainable mobility solutions of the future and also teach about them. Once this is explained objectively, the students are very interested and enthusiastic. I constantly emphasize that we are committed to environmentally friendly, sustainable, affordable and therefore socially balanced technology.
Robert Horvath conducted the interview.
The original of this post “”We are about to give up the world market leadership” ” comes from Cicero Online.