Is Pond Scum the Automotive Fuel of the Future?

Imagine if there were a low-cost, renewable, carbon neutral alternative to conventional automotive fossil fuels.  German automaker Audi says its E-Fuel is exactly that, and more.

Although the major thrust toward reducing carbon emissions and our dependence on oil has been in the development of electric battery and hybrid technologies, these approaches have some formidable drawbacks.

All-electric vehicles have limited range and require vast financial investments in re-fueling infrastructure. The majority of electric batteries derive their power from lithium, which must be mined from the earth and disposed of properly once their ability to hold an electrical charge has been depleted.

Hybrid technology has all the drawbacks of electric battery technology, and also relies heavily on fossil fuels.

Some, including billionaire Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, have argued that natural gas is the logical alternative to crude oil. Natural gas is cheap and abundant, but requires drilling and produces greenhouse gases when burned.  Like electric power, natural gas also requires specialized delivery infrastructure and engine modifications.

Still others have argued the virtues of biofuels which have heretofore been produced primarily from organic waste, corn and sugarcane.

Audi’s E-Fuel appears to offer the benefits of these other technologies, with very little downside.

E-Fuel is a renewable, carbon-neutral fuel that can be used to power conventional diesel-burning engines with no loss of power. The technology can also take advantage of the existing fuel delivery infrastructure.

E-Fuel is made from biogas which is produced from organic waste, or what has been referred to as “pond scum.” CO2 from the organic waste is converted into hydrogen through and electrolysis process using solar and wind technologies. In order to take advantage of existing automotive fueling infrastructure, the hydrogen is combined with CO2 in a methane-processing unit. The end product is renewable synthetic methane.

In a recent interview with CNN, Audi’s Head of Government Relations Brian Ranpp said, “Given the challenges ahead of us, with global warming – this is a solution.”

Audi’s first production model E-Fuel vehicle, the TCNG, is scheduled to go on sale in Germany in May.  The vehicle can run on both diesel and E-Gas and reportedly has a range of 775 miles on a full 13.2 gallon tank.

Audi plans to make its E-Gas available in the U.S. by 2016 at a price that’s comparable to diesel.

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