Reflection on 120 Years of Diesel

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Rudolf Diesel invented the internal combustion engine in 1898. (Image courtesy of DieselForum.org)

No doubt that some vehicles and niche applications will find electrification a good fit, but for the bulk of the diesel sectors of the economy, nothing comes close. Twenty-years plus a full century ago, (Aug. 9, 1898) one of what would be a series of patents was issued to a French engineer living in Berlin for an efficient, slow burning, compression ignition, internal combustion engine. Best known for the invention of an engine that today bears his name, Rudolf Diesel’s invention came while the steam engine was the predominant power source for large industries. Even at this most primitive stage, diesel technology demonstrated an efficiency of 26.2 percent vs. about 10 percent for steam. With more energy captured and directed towards mechanical work, and the potential the diesel engine was on its way.

In the early 1900’s, further developments in air handling and fuel injection systems enabled diesel engines to move from being large low-speed to high speed to a position of displacing steam engines as the primary motive power source for industrial needs. High speed diesel engines were first introduced for commercial vehicle applications in the 1920’s and in the 1930’s for passenger vehicles.

Now 120 years in, where is the diesel today? Bounding ahead and being true to its roots.

Today, a dozen decades after its invention, diesels remain as the prime mover, the power plant of choice for 15 sectors of the global economy. Mining, agriculture, construction, goods movement, public transportation and more. The inherent energy efficiency of the fuel and the increasing efficiency of the engine and its combustion process have ensured diesel has remained the technology of choice for these sectors.

This standing holds even after the substantial challenge and achievements that have now made diesel not only more efficient, but near zero in emissions performance. Today’s emissions control systems such as selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems are advanced, efficient and durable, and are available in smaller footprints and at lower cost than their initial introduction (2010). Confident in the long term future for diesel, manufacturers are now exploring how much nearer to zero they can get with diesel in future heavy-duty commercial vehicle engines. If history serves any purpose, there is more to come!

For passenger vehicles, the future of diesel is increasingly focused on larger vehicles—ones that are particularly suited to the advantages that diesel provides. The fastest growing and most popular SUVs and pickup truck segments are also the ones with the most diesel product offerings today. These vehicles must deliver the full package of no compromises in vehicle utility, driving range, more fuel efficiency and lower CO2 emissions, and competitive consumer return on investment.

Today, competition in fuels and engine technologies is greater than at any point in the past. Alternative fuels like natural gas (compressed or liquefied) have made only small niche inroads into sectors predominated by diesel. As for the threat of electrification to displace diesel, battery performance, while improving is still far away from being commercially challenging to the full array of energy, range and performance advantages of the diesel engine. No doubt that some vehicles and niche applications will find electrification a good fit, but for the bulk of the diesel sectors of the economy, nothing comes close.

The future of diesel is about taking a good thing and making it better. Two places that is happening is in the fuels that it uses and enhancements to the technology. Combining hybrid systems with diesel engines in vehicles or machines where it makes sense yields good returns for customers and more productivity as well, as demonstrated in both on-highway medium-size vehicles and even off-road construction equipment. Hybridization allows for downsizing diesel engines, less fuel consumption and lower emissions overall.

Diesel’s original engine was fueled on vegetable oil, a biofuel. In true back-to-the-roots fashion, one of the most exciting and growing opportunities for diesel today and in the future is the increasing use of renewable biofuels. These low-carbon drop-in petroleum replacement fuels are providing a viable, cost-effective and near-term benefit for progressive public and private fleets alike. In California, renewable biodiesel fuels are the linchpin of the low carbon fuel standard today and delivering important CO2 reductions for tomorrow.

Because we’re living in the future today, the diesel engine is important in achieving societal goals of cleaner air, lower greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth and productivity. The incremental advancements in diesel efficiency, new sensibilities about the role of advanced biofuels and overall continuous improvement of the technology ensure we’ll still be talking about diesel for decades to come.

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Ezra Finkin, director of policy for the Diesel Technology Forum, and originally published at www.dieselforum.org. It is reprinted here with permission.