Why are US Octane Ratings so low?
In Europe, the octane rating on the pump is simply the RON figure. America, by contrast, uses the average of the RON and the MON figures, called the AKI (anti-knock index). Thus, 97 octane “super unleaded” in Britain is roughly equivalent to 91 octane premium in the United States
In the U.S., unleaded gasoline typically has octane ratings of 87 (regular), 88–90 (midgrade), and 91–94 (premium).
Research Octane Number (RON)
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. The Compression ratio is varied during the test in order to challenge the fuel's antiknocking tendency as an increase in the compression ratio will increase the chances of knocking.
Motor Octane Number (MON)
Another type of octane rating, called Motor Octane Number (MON), is determined at 900 rpm engine speed instead of the 600 rpm for RON. MON testing uses a similar test engine to that used in RON testing, but with a preheated fuel mixture, 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 pump gasoline will be about 8 to 12 octane lower than the RON, but there is no direct link between RON and MON. Pump gasoline specifications typically require both a minimum RON and a minimum MON.
Anti-Knock Index (AKI) or (R+M)
In most countries in Europe (also in Australia, Pakistan and New Zealand) the "headline" octane rating shown on the pump is the RON, but in Canada, the United States, Brazil, and some other countries, the headline number is the simple mean or average of the RON and the MON, called the Anti-Knock Index (AKI), and often written on pumps as (R+M)/2. It may also sometimes be called the Posted Octane Number (PON).
Difference between RON, MON, and AKI
Because of the 8 to 12 octane number difference between RON and MON noted above, the AKI has shown in Canada and the United States is 4 to 6 octane numbers lower than elsewhere in the world for the same fuel. This difference between RON and MON is known as the fuel's Sensitivity, and is not typically published for those countries that use the Anti-Knock Index labeling system.
For more details on Octane: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octane_rating
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