octane number

octane number

octane number, figure of merit representing the resistance of gasoline to premature detonation when exposed to heat and pressure in the combustion chamber of an internal-combustion engine. Such detonation is wasteful of the energy in the fuel and potentially damaging to the engine; premature detonation is indicated by knocking or pinging noises that occur as the engine operates. If an engine running on a particular gasoline makes such noises, they can be lessened or eliminated by using a gasoline with a higher octane number. The octane number of a sample of fuel is determined by burning the gasoline in an engine under controlled conditions, e.g., of spark timing, compression, engine speed, and load, until a standard level of knock occurs. The engine is next operated on a fuel blended from a form of isooctane that is very resistant to knocking and a form of heptane that knocks very easily. When a blend is found that duplicates the knocking intensity of the sample under test, the percentage of isooctane by volume in the blended sample is taken as the octane number of the fuel. Octane numbers higher than 100 are found by measuring the amount of tetraethyl lead that must be added to pure isooctane to duplicate the knocking of a sample fuel. At present three systems of octane rating are used in the United States. Two of these, the research octane and motor octane numbers, are determined by burning the gasoline in an engine under different, but specified, conditions. Usually the motor octane number is lower than the research octane. The third octane rating, which federal regulations require on commercial gasoline pumps, is an average of research octane and motor octane. Under this system a regular grade gasoline has an octane number of about 87 and a premium grade of about 93. Most American-made cars that were built in the 1971 model year or later can use regular gasoline. To prevent knocking, premium grade gasoline must be used in many cars built before 1971 and in some new cars that have high-performance engines.

The octane rating is a measure of the resistance of gasoline and other fuels to detonation (engine knocking) in spark-ignition internal combustion engines. High-performance engines typically have higher compression ratios and are therefore more prone to detonation, so they require higher octane fuel. A lower-performance engine will not generally perform better with high-octane fuel, since the compression ratio is fixed by the engine design.

The octane number of a fuel is measured in a test engine, and is defined by comparison with the mixture of iso-octane and normal heptane which would have the same anti-knocking capacity as the fuel under test: the percentage, by volume, of iso-octane in that mixture is the octane number of the fuel. For example, gasoline with the same knocking characteristics as a mixture of 90% iso-octane and 10% heptane would have an octane rating of 90. Because some fuels are more knock-resistant than iso-octane, the definition has been extended to allow for octane numbers higher than 100.

Definition of octane rating

The octane rating of a spark ignition engine fuel is the detonation resistance (anti-knock rating) compared to a mixture of iso-octane (2,2,4-trimethylpentane, an isomer of octane) and n-heptane. By definition, iso-octane is assigned an octane rating of 100 and heptane is assigned an octane rating of zero. An 87-octane gasoline, for example, possesses the same anti-knock rating of a mixture of 87% (by volume) iso-octane and 13% (by volume) n-heptane. This does not mean, however, that the gasoline actually contains these hydrocarbons in these proportions. It simply means that it has the same detonation resistance as the described mixture.

Octane rating does not relate to the energy content of the fuel (see heating value). It is only a measure of the fuel's tendency to burn rather than explode.

Measurement methods

The most common type of octane rating worldwide is the Research Octane Number (RON). RON is determined by running the fuel in a test engine with a variable compression ratio under controlled conditions, and comparing the results with those for mixtures of iso-octane and n-heptane.

There is another type of octane rating, called Motor Octane Number (MON) or the aviation lean octane rating, which is a better measure of how the fuel behaves when under load. MON testing uses a similar test engine to that used in RON testing, but with a preheated fuel mixture, a higher engine speed, and variable ignition timing to further stress the fuel's knock resistance. Depending on the composition of the fuel, the MON of a modern gasoline will be about 8 to 10 points lower than the RON. Normally fuel specifications require both a minimum RON and a minimum MON.

In most countries (including all of Europe and Australia) the "headline" octane rating, shown on the pump, is the RON, but in the United States, Canada and some other countries the headline number is the average of the RON and the MON, sometimes called the Anti-Knock Index (AKI), Road Octane Number (RdON), Pump Octane Number (PON), or (R+M)/2. Because of the 8 to 10 point difference noted above, the octane shown in the United States is 4 to 5 points lower than the same fuel elsewhere: 87 octane fuel, the "regular" gasoline in the US and Canada, is 91-92 in Europe. However most European pumps deliver 95 (RON) as "regular", equivalent to 90-91 US (R+M)/2, and some even deliver 98 (RON) or 100 (RON).

It is possible for a fuel to have a RON greater than 100, because iso-octane is not the most knock-resistant substance available. Racing fuels, AvGas, LPG, and alcohol fuels such as methanol or ethanol can have octane ratings of 110 or significantly higher - ethanol's RON is 129 (MON 102, AKI 116). Typical "octane booster" gasoline additives include tetra-ethyl lead, MTBE and toluene. Tetra-ethyl lead (the additive used in leaded gasoline) is easily decomposed to its component radicals, which react with the radicals from the fuel and oxygen that start the combustion, thereby delaying ignition, leading to an increased octane number.

Examples of octane ratings

The octane ratings of n-heptane and iso-octane are exactly 0 and 100, by definition. For some other hydrocarbons, the following table gives the 'AKI' ratings.

hexadecane < -30
n-octane -10
n-heptane 0
diesel fuel 15–25
2-methylheptane 23
n-hexane 25
2-methylhexane 44
hydrogen* RON > 130; MON very low
1-heptene 60
n-pentane 62
1-pentene 84
n-butanol 87
E10 gasoline 87–90
n-butane 91
t-butanol 97
cyclohexane 97
iso-octane 100
benzene 101
propane 103
E85 gasoline 105
methane 107
ethane 108
methanol 113
toluene 114
ethanol 116
xylene 117

*Hydrogen does not fit well into the normal definitions of octane number. It has a very high RON and a low MON, so that it has low knock resistance in practice, due to its low ignition energy (primarily due to its low dissociation energy) and extremely high flame speed. These traits are highly desirable in rocket engines, but undesirable in Otto-cycle engines. However, as a minor blending component (e.g. in a bi-fuel vehicle), hydrogen raises overall knock resistance. Flame speed is limited by the rest of the component species; hydrogen may reduce knock by contributing its high thermal conductivity

Effects of octane rating

Higher octane ratings correlate to higher activation energies. Activation energy is the amount of energy necessary to start a chemical reaction. Since higher octane fuels have higher activation energies, it is less likely that a given compression will cause detonation.

It might seem odd that fuels with higher octane ratings explode less easily and can therefore be used in more powerful engines. However, an explosion is not desired in an internal combustion engine. An explosion will cause the pressure in the cylinder to rise far beyond the cylinder's design limits, before the force of the expanding gases can be absorbed by the piston traveling downward. This actually reduces power output, because much of the energy of combustion is absorbed as strain and heat in parts of the engine, rather than being converted to torque at the crankshaft.

A fuel with a higher octane rating can be run at a higher compression ratio without detonating. Compression is directly related to power (see engine tuning), so engines that require higher octane usually deliver more power. Engine power is a function of the fuel as well as the engine design and is related to octane rating of the fuel. Power is limited by the maximum amount of fuel-air mixture that can be forced into the combustion chamber. When the throttle is partially open, only a small fraction of the total available power is produced because the manifold is operating at pressures far below atmospheric. In this case, the octane requirement is far lower than when the throttle is opened fully and the manifold pressure increases to atmospheric pressure, or higher in the case of supercharged or turbocharged engines.

Many high-performance engines are designed to operate with a high maximum compression and thus demand high-octane premium gasoline. A common misconception is that power output or fuel mileage can be improved by burning higher octane fuel than a particular engine was designed for. The power output of an engine depends in part on the energy density of its fuel, but similar fuels with different octane ratings have similar density. Since switching to a higher octane fuel does not add any more hydrocarbon content or oxygen, the engine cannot produce more power.

However, burning fuel with a lower octane rating than required by the engine often reduces power output and efficiency one way or another. If the engine begins to detonate (knock), that reduces power and efficiency for the reasons stated above. Many modern car engines feature a knock sensor – a small piezoelectric microphone which detects knock and then sends a signal to the engine control unit to retard the ignition timing. Retarding the ignition timing reduces the tendency to detonate, but also reduces power output and fuel efficiency.

Most fuel stations have two storage tanks (even those offering 3 or 4 octane levels), and you are given a mixture of the higher and lower octane fuel. Purchasing premium simply means more fuel from the higher octane tank. The detergents in the fuel are the same, Premium does not "burn cleaner."

The octane rating was developed by chemist Russell Marker at the Ethyl Corporation c1926. The selection of n-heptane as the zero point of the scale was due to the availability of very high purity n-heptane, not mixed with other isomers of heptane or octane, distilled from the resin of the Jeffrey Pine. Other sources of heptane produced from crude oil contain a mixture of different isomers with greatly differing ratings, which would not give a precise zero point.

Regional variations

Octane ratings can vary greatly from region to region. For example, the minimum octane rating available in much of the United States is 87 AKI and the highest is 93. However this does not mean that the gas is different.

In the Rocky Mountain (high altitude) states, 85 octane is the minimum octane and 91 is the maximum octane available in fuel. The reason for this is that in higher-altitude areas, a typical combustion engine draws in less air per cycle due to the reduced density of the atmosphere. This directly translates to reduced absolute compression in the cylinder, therefore deterring knock. It is safe to fill up a car with a carburetor that normally takes 87 AKI fuel at sea level with 85 AKI fuel in the mountains, but at sea level the fuel may cause damage to the engine. A disadvantage to this strategy is that most turbocharged vehicles are unable to produce full power, even when using the "premium" 91 AKI fuel. In some east coast states, up to 94 AKI is available In parts of the Midwest (primarily Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri) ethanol based E-85 fuel with 105 AKI is available

California fuel stations will offer 87, 89, and 91 octane fuels, and at some stations, 100 or higher octane, sold as racing fuel. Until Summer 2001 before the phase-out of methyl tert-butyl ether aka MTBE as an octane enhancer additive, 92 octane was offered in lieu of 91.

Generally, octane ratings are higher in Europe than they are in North America and most other parts of the world. This is especially true when comparing the lowest available octane level in each country. In many parts of Europe, 95 RON (90-91 AKI) is the minimum available standard, with 97/98 being higher specification (being called Super Unleaded). In Germany, big suppliers like Shell or Aral offer 100 octane gasoline (Shell V-Power, Aral Ultimate) at almost every gas station. In Australia, "regular" unleaded fuel is RON 91, "premium" unleaded with RON 95 is widely available, and RON 98 fuel is also reasonably common. Shell sells RON 100 petrol from a small number of service stations, most of which are located in capital cities. In Malaysia, the "regular" unleaded fuel is RON 92, "premium" fuel is rated at RON 97 and Shell's V-Power at RON 99. In other countries "regular" unleaded gasoline, when available, is sometimes as low as 85 RON (still with the more regular fuel, 95, and premium, around 98, available). In Russia and CIS countries 80 RON (76 MON) is the minimum available and the standard.

This higher rating seen in Europe is an artifact of a different underlying measuring procedure. In most countries (including all of Europe and Australia) the "headline" octane that would be shown on the pump is the RON, but in the United States, Canada and some other countries the headline number is the average of the RON and the MON, sometimes called the Anti-Knock Index (AKI), Road Octane Number (RdON), Pump Octane Number (PON), or (R+M)/2. Because of the 8 to 10 point difference noted above, this means that the octane in the United States will be about 4 to 5 points lower than the same fuel elsewhere: 87 octane fuel, the "regular" gasoline in the US and Canada, would be 91-92 in Europe. However most European pumps deliver 95 (RON) as "regular", equivalent to 90–91 US (R+M)/2, and deliver 98 (RON), 99 or 100 (RON) labeled as Super Unleaded.

In the United Kingdom, 'regular' petrol has an octane rating of 95 RON, with 97 RON fuel being widely available. Tesco and Shell both offer 99 RON fuel. BP is currently trialling the public selling of the super-high octane petrol BP Ultimate Unleaded 102, which as the name suggests, has an octane rating of RON 102. Although BP Ultimate Unleaded (with an octane rating of RON 97) and BP Ultimate Diesel are both widely available throughout the UK, BP Ultimate Unleaded 102 is (as of October 2007) only available throughout the UK in 10 filling stations.


See also

External links

Octane ratings of some hydrocarbons

  1. Petroleum and Coal
  2. Gasoline Refining and Testing

Information in general

  1. Gasoline FAQ
  2. How Octane Works at

Khoo, Kenny K. Understanding Octane and its Related Components. Yellowknife: Smithsonian Press, 2006.

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