Synthetic oil has been around for as long as I’ve been doing oil changes. In all that time it never occurred to me that maybe someone could invent synthetic fuel, too.
Fuel made from renewable resources rather than harvested from oil buried deep in the earth can provide clean power to our cars without damaging the atmosphere. That’s a dream scenario, but plenty of technological and logistical problems exist with the concept.
Audi, though, has succeeded in creating a process that results in clean e-diesel, a fully synthetic fuel capable of powering modern diesel engines.
It turns out synthetic fuel has been around since the early 1900s, when it was discovered in Germany. Many processes to make it have been created in the years since, but all of them require some kind of earth-based raw material, such as coal. Audi’s is a little different.
The automaker’s Dresden, Germany, research facility produced the first batch of a synthetic and sustainable diesel fuel using electricity, water, and carbon dioxide extracted from the air.
The process, in broad strokes, involves high temperature electrolysis where water is heated up to form steam, which is then broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen then reacts with carbon dioxide under high pressure and temperature, with the resulting liquid composed of long-chain hydrocarbon compounds, dubbed blue crude. The blue crude is then refined through the common diesel refining process to yield e-diesel. Best of all, the resulting synthetic fuel is free from sulfur and aromatic hydrocarbons, which means it won’t smell or cover your car with soot. Audi says that this form of diesel is also readily ignitable.
The raw material used to create this fuel is carbon dioxide, which is readily available anywhere on the planet. Instead of drilling or fracking to find the oil to refine into fuel, this process extracts CO2 from the air and leaves virtually no impact on the climate.
As promising as this new technology is, it’s not hard to see the problems: cost and volume. Audi plans to create just 800 gallons of e-diesel over the next couple of months, which will probably be used for testing purposes. The long-term goal, though, is to efficiently create the fuel for widespread commercial distribution.
Maybe, one day in the future, we’ll have a choice for our environmentally friendly travel: cars powered by electricity or cars powered by synthetic e-diesel. Electric cars never have to be filled up but have limited range, while e-diesel cars can travel anywhere. I think I’d rather use e-diesel and never have to worry about range anxiety.
Would you rather drive a car powered by electricity or one fueled by man-made e-diesel?