As Toyota prepares to launch it’s Mirai hydrogen car this year, and compressed natural gas continues to power various vehicles, we begin to wonder what’s the next fuel-source for our vehicles. While Elon Musk insists upon reshaping the grid Tesla-style for car charging, the Dutch are busy building roads that are made out of solar cells in the hopes of one day powering cars with the roads they ride upon.
But Audi has decided to go down an entirely different path by turning a blend of water and CO2 into diesel fuel. The concoction is called “e-diesel,” and it may be the biggest environmentally-friendly alternative option yet. There are no fossil fuels, compressed natural gases, or expensive battery packs here, just a simple refinement process that is powered by wind and solar and designed to run in any diesel-powered engine.
Audi’s official press release shows that to make e-diesel, high-temperature electrolysis must first split water, then heat it to form steam, thus separating the hydrogen from the oxygen. The oxygen is then released into the atmosphere and the hydrogen is fed into a reactor, where it is blended with CO2, thus forming a liquid commonly referred to as “blue crude,” which can be refined like any other fuel. Audi says efficiency levels are about 70% right now, with future batches hopefully yielding far greater extraction rates.
Science aside, let’s look at what this means for the automotive world and the future of our planet. This is a very new program for Audi (it only started four months ago!) and already it has a finished product that has been tested and dubbed a success. Germany’s Federal Minister of Education and Research Prof. Dr. Johanna Wanka put the first batch into her Audi A8 TDI the other day to test it out. Upon returning she proclaimed “If we can make widespread use of CO2 as a raw material, we will make a crucial contribution to climate protection and the efficient use of resources, and put the fundamentals of the ‘green economy’ in place.”
This e-diesel is a concoction formulated with the help of a company called Sunfire. Almost every step in the manufacturing process has a recycling section for re-purposing unwanted waste, and the use of high-temperature electrolysis even has its own environmental perks since it can be used to stabilize power grids when green electricity production peaks.
Audi’s synthetic diesel is also reportedly free from sulfur and aromatic hydrocarbons while still being highly combustible, offering more power out of less fuel. Lab tests have also proved that it is suitable for blending with traditional diesel and blended diesel at the pump might indeed be the next feasible step for the company once more testing is complete.
Diesel powers the shipping industry as we know it, and most of the trucks and trains that deliver our goods rely upon it. So a game changer like this also has the attention of companies like Freightliner (which makes the incredibly efficient SuperTruck), especially since the U.S. government has put a mandate in place that requires semi manufacturers to boost their efficiency levels by the year 2018. Diesel isn’t the only alternative fuel Audi is tinkering with, as it already produces Audi e‑gas (synthetic methane) in a similar process, and it’s currently researching a way to synthetically manufacture gasoline. Audi has also reportedly agreed to team-up with U.S.-based alternative fuel firm Joule Unlimited to harness microorganisms in order to produce synthetic fuels like e‑diesel and e‑ethanol.
So what does this all mean for the future of cars and the planet? Last time we checked the Earth’s surface was still primarily composed of water, and CO2 continues to be an overly-abundant nuisance. So we have plenty of “fuel” at our disposal, solar and wind have the ability to provide environmentally friendly power for refining, and since the final product is ready for use in any existing diesel engine, there is no need to reinvent the wheel to make a car run on the stuff. Imagine a world where rising sea levels are held in check by fuel consumption, and off-shore oil rigs are turned into e-diesel refining stations that rely on wind turbines to keep the entire operation environmentally friendly and self-sufficient.
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