Audi’s geneticallymodified fuels Autofocus ca

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Audi e-gas

Betting big on climate-friendly, synthetically-produced, fuels for your future car

The rolling chassis of the new A3 TCNG. Audi’s put a modified 1.4-litre turbo engine upfront.

The Audi A3 TCNG, built to support the e-gas project.

It might well have been a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica, though I m sure the sign at the airport said, Munich.

Eerily akin to the scientists in Jurassic Park, the man standing in front of me is talking about how he and his team have been genetically modifying some of the oldest life forms on earth. Not dinosaurs for a theme park though, but ancient cyanobacteria, to produce synthetic fuels for your car.

Reiner Mangold is Audi s head of sustainable product development. He and his team were on-hand to show off the German automaker s latest, cutting-edge technology. They introduced us to what could be one of the most ambitious, straight-out-of-sci-fi projects happening in the car world right now.

How does an seemingly unlimited supply of sustainably-grown fuel sound?

The Setup

Like every automaker, Audi’s working to reduce the nasty carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by its vehicles before, during and after their lives. It s cleaning up production, making vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient and then entirely recyclable.

It’s now gone a step further: Mangold uses a typical A3 TDI that covers 200,000 km before retirement, as an example. His team looked at where CO2 is produced from the car in, raw materials in production, use and recycling. In production it s 20 percent, in use 79 percent and recycling just one percent. Fossil fuels then, are a major contributor to CO2 emissions.

Mangold says Audi s shooting for the holy grail of CO2 neutrality from its cars, i.e. its vehicles won t increase or reduce the amount of CO2 on the planet over their lifetime. It s thinking holistically, though: in the making of fuel, in the factory and beyond. Tricky stuff, especially as extracting crude oil from the earth, processing and burning it puts so much red in a car s eco-ledger.

To reach carbon neutrality then, Audi s decided, to become directly involved in the development and production” of its own climate-friendly and in some cases organically-produced renewable fuels including hydrogen, gas, ethanol and diesel.

That a car maker thinks this way about fuel, may be unique in the world, said Mangold, who joined this so-called e-power project two-and-a-half years ago. The combustion engine has a future… [but we] want to offer cars that cause no further damage to the environment.

Step One: The E-gas Plant

Right now Audi s building a plant in Northwestern Germany to make its first batches of sustainable fuels. The plant will be powered by solar panels and four wind turbines in the North Sea, which start producing electricity at the end of 2013.

Admittedly, parts of this project are still largely vapourware: Audi says energy from the turbines, fed into the public grid, could power electric cars (one minute of work by a single wind turbine will be enough to power its experimental A1 e-tron for 300 kilometres); while volts used for electrolysis (chemically separating water with an electric current) at the plant could make e-hydrogen to power future fuel-cell driven cars.

Much more immediate will be production of e-gas, or methane, a natural gas substitute. This will be the world’s first facility to convert renewable electricity and CO2 into a synthetic natural gas that can be fed into Germany s national grid on an industrial scale.

Apples to Apples

For an idea of how this could work, let s look at an apple tree: It breaths in CO2 to make fruit; You eat the fruit and throw the core in the trash; That organic waste goes to a biogas plant, which makes a nice, hot garbage soup from it all, collecting CO2 for the e-gas factory; Electricity from those wind turbines not only powers the electrolysis mentioned above, but also helps then combine hydrogen and CO2 in an extra-hot sauna, to become methane.

E-gas is born and piped to a local fueling station; Not coincidentally, early next year Audi will start selling a dual-fuel A3 TCNG to run on the fuel in Europe; It says this first plant will fuel 1,500 cars to drive 15,000 kms annually. The kicker is that all the CO2 the A3 s will release will be used by that apple tree all over again, so the automaker s effectively only borrowing the CO2. A big part of this, of course, is a plan to produce more cars like the A3 TCNG to run on e-gas.

Says Audi, the e-gas project could easily be implemented in any countries in which natural gas networks exist.

Step Two: Bio-engineered Ethanol and Diesel

Renewal fuels are nothing new. They re already being made from biomass like corn and rapeseed. They mean a smaller CO2 footprint, because today what your engine burns, is roughly equal to what the plant absorbs during growth.

Still, Audi says with populations soaring and climate change affecting crop yields, using food for fuel sometimes means we can t feed people.

This is where things go decidedly Jurassic Park.

Audi started a cooperation with U.S. company Joule Unlimited in 2011. It s a biotechnology firm headquartered in Bedford, Massachusetts. They ve figured out a way to engineer synthetic renewable liquid fuels that don t compete with food production and are made only from carbon dioxide, wastewater and sunshine.

How? They genetically modify microscopic cyanobacteria to actually excrete fuel and industrialized it.

How it s Done

Audi e-gas

Right now, Audi and Joule are building a two-hectare demonstration plant in Hobbs, New Mexico. It s barren land that s bad for crop growing, but abundant in what the bacteria needs most: sunshine.

Single-celled and measuring just a thousandth of a millimetre, the cyanobacteria function much like a plant, living on sunlight and CO2 (photosynthesis, if you remember from your grade three science class). Instead of growing more cells, the microorganisms have been altered to produce fuel. Like every living organism, the cyanobacteria have a genetic code, said Mangold. Computer technology and automation have finally caught up with the idea. The labs at Joule have automated gene sequencers. We take a section out of the code and replace it with a different codes.

The plant in New Mexico then, works like this: billions of the organisms are combined with salt, brackish or wastewater in long transparent plastic tubes. CO2 from a biomass plant is pumped in as well. When the sun hits the tubes, there s an instant chemical reaction and the bacteria excretes either synthetic ethanol or diesel.

Audi says the fuel is easily separated from the water and concentrated. No further manufacturing steps are required.

So can I fill my car with the stuff today?

Not exactly. The plant should start to produce e-ethanol by the end of this year and e-diesel by the end of 2013. According to Mangold, right now the ethanol can be added to gasoline or form the basis for E85.

Meanwhile, the highly combustible synthetic diesel, which is free of sulfur and other nasty fossil fuel compounds, will be added to crude-based diesel fuel. Mangold says, down the road it, will result in a fuel that works seamlessly with existing Audi TDI clean diesel systems.

For now, Audi s only saying the plant will make 150,000 litres of e-ethanol per year. Per square metre versus corn, that equals at least a factor of 20 higher.

Reimer admits for the e-diesel, the issue is not the extracting, it’s making [it] in the quantity we need. Right now that’s around 50,000L per hectare per year, well under the e-ethanol.

Is Audi going to be the next Exxon then?

“While we are the world’s first carmaker to become directly involved in the development and production of renewable fuels that do not rely on biomass, says Mangold, we re not going to become an oil company.

That said, Audi s people kept a lot of the finer points of these synthetic fuels close to the vest during the future technology debrief near Munich. It has exclusive automotive rights to the technology with Joules into the foreseeable future, though did mention, that the factory in New Mexico is based on a highly-scalable modular system, and commercial production of the new fuels could commence within the next five years.

In other words, it s going to take a chequebook for the world s other carmakers to get involved in Audi s business of synthetically-produced renewable fuels.

The Takeaway? The future may not be in hybrids and electric cars, but rather regular engines powered by sustainably grown, carbon-neutral fuel. It s not a fantasy, this stuff is about to be produced on an industrial scale in the next year or so.

And on the automotive front, it would only take minimal re-tweaking of your Audi s engine to make it all work.

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