If you drive or ride in any vehicle theses days — aside from outliers like the Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, or Ford Focus Electric — it’s likely powered by a petroleum-based fuel, be it gasoline or diesel. Audi (and the Volkswagen Group as a whole), however, is looking at alternative fuel sources that are more environmentally friendly and sustainable than fossil fuels and have come with a rather ingenious solution to replacement traditional gasoline: e-benzin.
E-benzin is a synthetic gasoline that Audi developed in conjunction with French company Global Bioenergies. For now, the process begins with glucose that is derived from corn (I’m starting to have ethanol flashbacks). From there, the glucose is fermented and then purified into a liquefied isobutene.
Audi’s second partner, the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes, then takes over by converting the isobutene into isooctane. The final product, e-benzin, leaves the factory with no traces of sulfur or benzene, making it an incredibly clean-burning fuel. In addition, in its current form, e-benzin has RON rating of about 100, which should sit somewhere between regular unleaded and premium unleaded for U.S. based fuels.
The ability to burn so cleanly would allow engines that use e-benzin to use a higher compression ratio, and thus increase fuel efficiency. It’s a win-win proposition for automakers and consumers. However, you know that there has to be a downside to this wonder-fuel, and there’s definitely a big one. Audi and its partners simply can’t scale the production of e-benzin quickly enough. Whereas the U.S. as a whole consumes roughly 10 million barrels of oil per day of petroleum-based products, Audi has only produced a few liters worth of viable e-benzin to date.
The next goal for Audi — other than ramping up production, which would be a huge undertaking for any company — is to completely remove the requirement for biomass in production, leaving a production process that would involve just hydrogen, water, CO2, and power derived from solar-energy. But while e-benzin does look promising in this prototype stage, it may be years before we see anything that could give traditional fossil fuels a run for their money. And by that time, maybe we’ll all be riding around in affordable Teslas.