Reality check: Audi making e-diesel from air and water won’t change the car industry

In creating its new synthetic fuel e-diesel, Audi has performed the automotive equivalent of turning water into wine – turning water and carbon dioxide into a fuel with a net-zero carbon footprint.

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Audi believes its new fuel can power a new generation of cars. Already Germany’s Federal Minister of Education and Research Prof. Dr. Johanna Wanka has filled her car with the first five litres of fuel, produced in conjunction with German alternative energy company Sunfire at a factory in Dresden.

Although the invention of any carbon-neutral fuel is fantastic news, it’s not quite the world-changing breakthrough Audi is claiming. For one, this isn’t the first carbon-neutral fuel to be developed, and now the combustion engine has a limited shelf life thanks to developments in electric cars, e-Diesel only has a small window of opportunity in the automotive industry.

Audi is aware it needs its e-diesel technology to reach new sectors and nations to flourish into anything useful. “Using CO2 as a raw material represents an opportunity not just for the automotive industry in Germany, but also to transfer the principle to other sectors and countries,” said Audi’s head of sustainable product development Reiner Mangold in a press release.

However, passing such technology along to other sectors won’t help carbon-neutral fuels find their niche. For many energy companies the idea of building anything with renewable energy in mind seems like a frightening prospect. Only this week was it revealed by The Guardian that Shell had successfully lobbied to reduce the EU’s renewables targets. That doesn’t strike me as a company who’s invested in reducing its carbon footprint through investment into carbon-neutral fuels.

Audi creates its e-diesel through capturing CO2 from the air and using renewable energy to power the electrolysis used for splitting H2O molecules apart. It’s ingenious, but it will never be a viable replacement for standard fuels in combustion engines or as an alternate energy source.

If the world adopted Audi’s method of producing e-Diesel, there definitely wouldn’t be an abundance of the stuff. Currently the Dresden plant is capable of producing 3,000 litres of e-diesel in a few months. To put that into perspective, last year the US guzzled through 1.7 billion litres in a day. At 0.0002% of the US’ daily output, it’s just not a feasible energy alternative.

With Tesla’s plans for producing both home and industrial-scale batteries, the prospect of fuel-based generators as backup power supplies seem like a thing of the past. And any energy company supplying power to homes and businesses would be better off delivering it directly from renewable energy sources, instead of synthesising fuel to burn.

Audi isn’t going to give up though, having worked on the project since 2009. The trouble is, by the time it becomes a viable alternative for some Audi drivers to use, the advances in electric cars should have taken off enough to see e-diesel’s applications in the automotive industry made practically obsolete.

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