A Diesel Powered Future?
Diesel Power was a revolution that still inspires new innovations even today.
Upon operating his first successful engine design back in 1897 Rudolph Diesel changed the world in ways that most people still don’t fully appreciate today. Especially now, as we begin the long process of moving out of the petroleum-powered era, we should pause to take lessons from visionaries like Tesla and Diesel, and consider how they harnessed natural forces and physical phenomena to revolutionize existing technologies, and enabled enormous leaps into the Future by allowing others to build upon the solid foundations that they laid. The venerable diesel engine was an innovation of the internal combustion engine that continues to be improved upon even today, with the new methods and materials that are offered by modern science.
Many of us associate diesel power with loud smelly trucks and buses, so it might come as a great surprise that Diesel technology is actually still being improved upon after all this time. In fact, in just the past few years we’re seeing a level of improvement to efficiency and emissions that are actually positioning diesel as a sustainable interim solution for our transportation needs…While other options continue to be researched for that quantum leap in technology that will slingshot both Industry and Society towards the next century. So If you’re ready to see how diesel power still holds a few tricks up it’s sleeve, then let’s start exploring, by looking at railway locomotives as our prime motivator!
BTW: If you’re curious about Rudolf Diesel’s sense of environmental and social responsibility, as it was well over a century ago…Just pop-open another window by clicking HERE for further insights.
But hey…Why not just use electric locomotives !?!
Like electric cars, electric locomotives don’t actually eliminate emissions, they simply displace them from the vehicle, to a larger power plant via the electrical grid…A grid which is itself in great need upgrading itself, to avoid it’s own growing inefficiencies and wasteful shortcomings . Electric generation capacity is already severely challenged by current consumption levels, and with the only available means to add large and dependable capacity to the system currently being limited to nuclear or fossil-fuel powered plants, the enormous increases in production required for electric trains and cars would just lead to even more coal fired plants being put online in North America. In the absence of an alternative baseload capacity (since solar and wind aren’t up for that big job at present), we would need to find other efficiencies in the today’s existing methods…As we await the laying of plans to realize a truly sustainable and electrically powered future for automotive and rail transport.
Luckily for our environment in general, and rail transport in particular, the predominant and pervasive technologies that provide us with Diesel power are still finding impressive new efficiencies – even over a century after they were first designed! Keep in mind that Diesel engines were not only an astounding leap in technology when they were first invented, but have also continued to evolve and develop ever since.
The historical strengths of Diesel Power
From the outset, and to this very day, Diesel engines offer the highest thermal fuel efficiencies of any internal combustion engines (20-40% less fuel consumption), thus they produce less Carbon Dioxide (CO2) for the same work done by a petrol/gas powered engine. Due to their much higher compression design, and longer bore cycles they also run cooler (both engine and exhaust), and produce very minimal carbon monoxide, thus the reason why they’re used underground in mines. Diesels are not only built more solidly to run and last longer (again due to inherent design requirements), they also don’t require rare or heavy metals for electrical/electronic controls and components, nor spark systems for combustion, thus they’re also highly reliable in wet conditions, and place no excessive burdens upon new resource development and mining for rare earths and metals. Diesel engines can also run on any number of alternative fuel formulations without any modifications to the basic engine design. In short diesel engines remain the most rugged, reliable, adaptable, and thus sustainable source of petrol-powered mechanical energy currently available today, but that’s only the start of it’s future potential.
The Little Engine that Could
Historically, there’s always been trade-off between ‘performance’ and ‘fuel efficiency’, where higher particulates (or “soot”) resulted from higher diesel performance levels, as a result of excess fuel present in the compression cycle, not being allowed to burn completely. Fortunately,advanced new technologies such as electronic controls, common rail fuel injection, variable injection timing, improved combustion chamber configuration and turbocharging have all made diesel engines much cleaner, quieter and much more powerful than ever before.
Just as the removal of lead from gasoline allowed for catalytic converters to become possible in the 70’s, the removal of sulfur from diesel fuels (see below) allowed for many new advances in diesel exhaust controls as well. For example, particulate filters that not only capture these partially combusted particles, but actually feed them back into the fuel cycle are now possible, and reduce particulate emissions by 80-90%. In fact, you’ll really only ever see a diesel engine running wasteful (and polluting) levels on occasions like competitive tractor pulls (where “efficiency is a non-factor), or on a MUCH smaller scale, if someone were to operate a poorly maintained truck, or drive it away at full throttle before letting the engine warm up properly.
On the subject of emissions, the sulfur-oxides that have plagued the emissions of diesel designs for decades have now been addressed through new standards for Ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD), which as of 2006 is the standard for all petroleum-based diesel sold in Europe and North-America…With more world-wide regulation on the way hopefully. These newer fuel formulations have also enabled the much higher emissions control standards that went into effect for vehicles in the USA in 2007.
Most people don’t realize it, but Rudolf Diesel envisioned a world where his engines could be used by Farmers and Craftsmen who could grow their own fuel-stock locally. His first successful test ran on peanut-oil, and he was a proponent of plant based fuels from the very start. Today, we’re seeing a “back-to the future” scenario being played out with new bio-diesel fuel sources being derived from specialized plant crops which effectively lower the net CO2 emissions of diesel engines even further by absorbing existing CO2 from the environment initially and re-emitting this during combustion, rather than simply releasing more “new” (or ancient) CO2 from petroleum-based fuel sources underground. Although there are significant doubts about the sustainability of crop based bio-fuels (due to the displacement of food crops), we’re seeing some exciting new developments in modified algae-based fuel production as well, which promise to have a very positive effect on water based CO2 levels, and therefore overall PH of oceans as a positive side-effect.
Well Regulated Results
Meanwhile, in Canada the concentrations of sulfur from diesel fueled engines have been regulated down from 500 PPM to 15 PPM starting in 2010 models, and since the timing and levels of these reductions have been aligned with those set forth by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we see every indication that further EPA mandated reductions for marine and rail transport will also be applied by Canadian regulators as well. As far as mass transport and travel goes, we’ve yet to see any steady indications of new emissions regulations for the airline industry, but we can at least look to our railways to lead the charge to a much more environmentally responsible and sustainable modes of transport with the Tier 2 standards that have reduced Nitrous-Oxide emissions by %60, and particulate matter by %50.
What’s more is that we don’t have to wait for this to happen, as we are already seeing a whole new generation of locomotives on the rails today that are operational proof that Diesel Power still has a great deal to offer modern society…
Look at the impressive cycle of improvements for Diesel Locomotion!
To conclude…Rudolf Diesel wasn’t just a brilliant mechanical engineer, he was deeply fascinated by efficiencies in thermo-dynamics in order to free human ingenuity and independent craftsmanship from the mass production of industrialized Society!
LEARN MORE about why the social ideals held by Rudolf Diesel were actually a serious threat to multinational Coal and Oil interests, the Big Banks, and even European governments
…and how his ideas are still ready to change the world today !
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