Audi opens renewable energy E-gas plant in Germany

Audi has opened the doors to its new power-to-gas facility, which will make what the automaker calls E-gas, in Werlte, Germany. The plant produces hydrogen and synthetic methane and these clean fuels come from renewable energy, water and carbon dioxide. Audi says it's the first automaker to "develop a chain of sustainable energy carriers."

"The power-to-gas facility we built in Werlte can become a beacon project for the entire energy revolution, far beyond the boundaries of our company," Peter Altmaier, German Federal Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, said at the inaugural ceremony, as quoted in the Audi press release (available below).

The Audi E-gas plant uses electrolysis to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which will someday power fuel-cell vehicles. For now, methanation is the process used to make the synthetic natural gas. Audi reacts the hydrogen with CO2 to generate renewable synthetic methane. The E-gas can be delivered through existing natural gas pipes since, chemically speaking, it's nearly identical to natural gas. Delivery of E-gas through the infrastructure is scheduled to start in the fall of 2013.

Audi says E-gas from the plant can power 1,500 new Audi A3 Sportback G-tron vehicles for 15,000 CO2-neutral kilometers (about 9,321 miles) each year. The Werlte plant is part of Audi's comprehensive e-fuels strategy and sustainability initiative. In parallel with the E-gas plant in Werlte, Audi also runs a research facility in Hobbs, NM, for the production of E-ethanol and E-diesel in collaboration with renewable fuel company Joule.

There could be another reason for building the plant beyond sustainability. New vehicle sales in Europe are experiencing a serious downturn. Analysts also say that global OEMs are starting to transform their identities from "automakers" to "mobility companies," so Audi's e-gas plant could cover a few strategic agendas.
World premiere: Audi opens power-to-gas facility
  • Official inauguration of the Audi e-gas plant in Werlte/Emsland
  • e-gas from water, green electricity and carbon dioxide as a climate-friendly replacement for natural gas
  • Audi A3 Sportback g-tron is CO2-neutral when driven on e-gas
Audi opens the e-gas plant in Werlte today making it the first automobile manufacturer to develop a chain of sustainable energy carriers. It begins with green electricity, water and carbon dioxide. The end products are hydrogen and the synthetic methane: Audi e-gas.

"Audi is taking a giant step toward the mobility of the future today," said Heinz Hollerweger, Head of Total Vehicle Development, in his speech at the inauguration. "Audi is the only manufacturer worldwide with such innovative technology. Research into synthetic, environment-friendly fuels is the core of our vigorous e-fuels strategy." Reiner Mangold, Head of Sustainable Product Development, added, "The power-to-gas facility we built in Werlte can become a beacon project for the entire energy revolution, far beyond the boundaries of our company." Peter Altmaier, German Federal Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, also commended Audi's commitment in his welcoming address.

The e-gas plant works in two process steps: electrolysis and methanation. In the first step, the plant uses surplus green electricity to break water down into oxygen and hydrogen in three electrolyzers. The hydrogen could one day power fuel-cell vehicles. For the time being, however, in the absence of an area-wide infrastructure, a second process step is carried out directly: methanation. The hydrogen is reacted with CO2 to produce synthetic methane, or Audi e-gas. It is virtually identical to fossil natural gas and will be distributed via an existing infrastructure, the German natural gas network, to the CNG filling stations. The plant is scheduled to begin feeding Audi e-gas to the grid in fall 2013.

The Audi e-gas plant will produce about 1,000 metric tons of e-gas per year, chemically binding some 2,800 metric tons of CO2. This roughly corresponds to the amount that a forest of over 220,000 beech trees absorbs in one year. Water and oxygen are the only by-products.

Audi built the e-gas plant in collaboration with the plant construction specialist ETOGAS GmbH (formerly SolarFuel) and its project partner MT-BioMethan GmbH on a 4,100 m2 (44,132.03 sq ft) plot of land owned by EWE AG. Ground was broken in September 2012, and the topping-out ceremony was celebrated in December. The efficient use of energy flows is the top priority in the production sequence of the plant. The waste heat given off during methanation is used as process energy in the adjacent biogas plant, significantly increasing overall efficiency. In return, this plant supplies the highly concentrated CO2 required as a basic building block for the e-gas. This CO2 thus serves as a raw material and is not emitted to the atmosphere.

It is anticipated that the e-gas from Werlte will power 1,500 new Audi A3 Sportback g-tron vehicles for 15,000 kilometers (9,320.57 miles) of CO2-neutral driving every year. The 1.4 TFSI in the five-door model can burn natural gas, biomethane and Audi e-gas; with its bivalent design it can also use gasoline. This gives it a total range of some 1,300 kilometers (807.78 miles).

Customers can order a quota of e-gas when they purchase the car. This enables them to take part in an accounting process that ensures that the amount of gas that they put in their vehicle at the natural gas filling station is supplied to the grid by the Audi e-gas plant. Payment and billing is handled via the Audi e-gas refueling card.

The Audi A3 Sportback g-tron, which is scheduled for launch late this year, consumes on average less than 3.5 kg (7.72 lb) e-gas per 100 kilometers (62.14 miles). CO2 tailpipe emissions are less than 95 grams per km (152.89 g/mile) in the NEDC. Driving with Audi e-gas is climate-neutral, since the CO2 generated when the vehicle is driven had been bound previously during the production of the e-gas. Even in a comprehensive wheel-to-well analysis that includes the construction and operation of the e-gas plant and the wind turbines, CO2 emissions are just 20 grams per kilometer (32.19 g/mile). The groundbreaking environmental footprint was recently certified by TÜV Nord.

The Audi e-gas project transcends the automobile industry. It shows how large amounts of green electricity can be stored efficiently and independently of location by transforming it into methane gas and storing it in the natural gas network, the largest public energy storage system in Germany. With the e-gas project, Audi is a part of and a driver of the energy revolution. Major German energy utilities have since taken up the idea of power-to-gas cogeneration and are following Audi with initial projects of their own.

The e-gas project is part of Audi's comprehensive e-fuels strategy. In parallel with the e-gas plant in Werlte, Audi also operates a research facility in Hobbs, New Mexico, USA, for the production of e-ethanol and e-diesel in collaboration with Joule. At this facility, microorganisms use water (brackish, salt or wastewater) sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce high-purity fuels. The strategic goal of these projects is to use CO2 as a raw material for fuels and thus improve the overall footprint substantially. The e-fuels strategy is an important pillar of Audi's sustainability initiative.

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