Almost two years ago, Audi began experimenting with a new fuel source for vehicles. Everyone knows about electric, hydrogen, and hybrid alternatives to the big fuel source that’s we’ve been relying on for decades: gasoline. These alternatives have been about as effective at replacing gasoline as solar power has been at replacing coal-fired power plants. Therefore, Audi decided to try a different way.
E-fuels is the name of a man-made fuel that can be burned in the internal combustion engines automakers have been using for as long as cars have existed. We say man-made, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. The idea is to genetically engineer a particular type of bacteria that acts kind of like algae and kind of like plankton. The bacteria lives in water, feeds off sunlight and carbon dioxide, but instead of producing oxygen like many types of plankton, the bacteria emits a combustible vapor instead.
This bacteria was engineered by Joule, a Massachusetts-based company named for a unit of energy. Joule is opening a facility in New Mexico to conduct tests about how to produce the fuel, and Audi’s teams in Germany are conducting tests as well to determine how e-fuels react in combusting chambers. Audi says that e-fuels combust better than natural carbon fuels because they lack the variations and imperfections found in naturally produced materials. E-fuels have no variations, just the same fuel produced over and over again. That results in optimized burning and fewer emissions.
This technology is still in the developmental phase, but the construction of a New Mexico facility is encouraging for the fuel’s long-term future. Joule’s goal is to produce 25,000 gallons of synthetic ethanol per acre. Because the U.S. used about 365 million gallons of gasoline per day in 2012, it would take about 15,000 acres to produce enough e-fuels for the U.S.’s daily needs. To put that into perspective, Rhode Island, the smallest U.S. state, has 677,000 acres.
And the estimated cost per gallon of that e-fuel? $1.28 per gallon.