Will E-Benzin finally crack the Gordian Knot of synthetic gasoline?

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Audi has created E-Benzin, a synthetic gasoline. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Audi has created E-Benzin, a synthetic gasoline. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Audi has come up with a synthetic gasoline called E-Benzin, which uses no petroleum products at all but should- in theory – be able to fully power a car. Like any synthetic fuel, the question becomes whether it’s feasible to employ on a large scale, which is what has kept synthetic fuels in the lab and out of your tank.

E-Benzin is Audi this world

Audi’s recently announced E-Benzin fuel, a synthetic gasoline fuel – also referred to as synfuel – that they have helped cook up in the lab, in conjunction with Global Bioenergies. The fuel, according to Car and Driver, is distilled to 100 RON (Research Octane Number, the same as octane; the stuff most cars run on is 92 octane/92 RON) and it’s made from biomass, meaning plants and other biodegradable material – just like biodiesel.

They haven’t tested it in an actual car yet, but they assert that since it doesn’t contain benzene or sulfur and will therefore burn cleaner than regular gasoline. Audi and Global Bioenergies also have a next step in mind, namely how to produce it without needing biomass, with the endgame being to be able to make gasoline from water, hydrogen, sunlight and carbon dioxide.

Not the first attempt

Audi and Global Bioenergies’ E-Benzin is far from the first attempt. A syngas that is both cheap and easy enough to make in mass quantities and replace fossil fuels is kind of the philosopher’s stone of modern chemistry.

Synthetic fuels have been made for more than a century. The Nazis, for instance, were making fuel from liquified coal; part of the process for doing so, called the Fischer-Tropsch process, is still being used in synthetic fuel development.

This isn’t even Audi’s first attempt; the company has invested a lot of money into creating “e-fuels,” another term for synfuels; among other previous efforts is a method of creating synfuel from algae and bioengineered photosynthetic organisms.

The attempt to create synfuel without biomass isn’t a new thing either. What makes a fuel a fuel – and the scientific bits are being WAY dumbed down (for the writer, not the reader. ed.) – are rich in hydrocarbons and oxygen, which gives them their potential energy. Oxygen is required to burn, but hydrocarbons burn more intensely and over a longer period. Thus, you just need to mix hydrogen with something rich in carbon and oxygen…like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, some of the most abundant gases in existence. It’s a matter of getting the process right, and people are trying.

For instance, a British firm called Air Fuel Synthesis (they aren’t that clever with names) developed a process for creating synthetic gas using air, water and CO2 in 2012, according to The Telegraph. In 2014, German engineering firm Sunfire, according to CNET developed a process accomplishing the same.

Synthetic gasoline, incidentally, burns cleaner than the natural stuff. Sulfur and other compounds extant in crude oil aren’t in the lab-made version, so there are fewer impurities to gunk up one’s engine or choke Coca-Cola swilling polar bears to death.

Supply and demand

Audi E-Benzin sounds awesome. Like it could save the car as we know it. However, all synthetic fuels come up against the issue of supply and demand, namely that the latter is too great for the former to meet, hence synfuel is not offered at the local 7-11.

Biomass alone isn’t going to do it; there simply isn’t enough arable land to produce enough plant matter to keep up with global demand. The process to produce sygas without needing biomass – such as through carbon dioxide capture – and on a large enough scale and profitably enough to replace gasoline also hasn’t been invented yet.

Key word being yet.

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