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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.
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. It is only a measure of the fuel's tendency to burn rather than explode.
The most common type of octane rating worldwide is the Research Octane Number. 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 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 and leading to an increased octane number. However, tetra-ethyl lead and its byproducts are posionous and tetra-ethyl lead's use creates an environmental hazards. Beginning in the 1970s, its use in the United States and most of the industrialized world has been restricted. Its use is currently limited to being an addative to aviation gasoline.