Another Lease on Life for Diesels

 In Fuel

No need to ditch your diesels: Engineers are steadily improving their performance. 

The Times, They are A’Changin’:  While there is much talk about alternatives to diesel fuel, that talk is still mainly in the chatty phase.  Four years ago it was the use of natural gas fuels, either compressed or frozen.  More recently, it is the use of electric vehicles.  In both cases, proponents cite reductions in emissions,especially of carbon dioxide, and savings in fuel costs.  So far, however, the adoption of such vehicles has been limited due to their disadvantages in range, and lack of refueling infrastructure.  Local operations, where range and refueling are not problems and the vehicle can be refueled at night, are the best options. Despite the current limitations, such experiments are a good thing in a world of rapid technological change.  I predict an electricity-based transport world by 2050, engineered by generation and transmission improvements that will dramatically lower the cost of power.  Just as today’s technology would appear to be practically free in the wood-burning business people of 1800’s, so will the experimental power sources of today seem rudimentary and inefficient to the business people of the second half of this century.

But not so fast!  We still have twenty to forty years of transition that will give ample time for engineers to continue to develop today’s diesel truck engines.  There are three such examples that have the potential to push the state of the art for diesel technology well forward – enough to counter the optimistic ten-year forecasts that predict dominance for natural gas or electric vehicles.

It’s not your father’s No 2 diesel!  The first comes from a Canadian company called, Enezol, and involves the diesel fuel itself.  Enezol claims to have discovered a way to modify the refining process with a catalyst to produce a fuel that burns with 20% more efficiency This would significantly improve the efficiency of today’s fuels by encouraging more complete combustion.  It is a step in a larger process involving the production of high-density liquid fuels that could revolutionize combustion engines.   For instance, current technology already produces a payback for natural-gas-derived liquid fuel should crude price rise beyond $200/gallon.

Back to the future:  The second new idea comes from the Achates Company in California, the first of several outfits studying the application of new tools in the design of an old favorite: the opposed-piston, two-cycle engine – the kind that powered many American submarines during World War 2.  Such technology fell by the wayside during the early days of emission controls, given the difficulty of controlling emission in two-stroke designs.  Now, however, the possibilities with digitally-controlled air flows and fuel injection may revive the concept.  Opposed-piston, two-cycle engines are simple, leak less heat, and are very light. 1  Achates projects up to 30% efficient gains.   Cummins Engine Company is currently working with this technology in a military truck application.  Should it succeed there, on-highway would be next.

1 An opposed-piston engine has no head, no valves, no push rods, no cam shafts, no timing gears.

Entrepreneurs are always touting their next technical miracle:  Yes, these two technologies are but two more examples of a parade of seemingly good ideas that usually fail to gain traction when exposed to the realities of the difficult trucking operating environment.  Yet that parade of entrepreneurial innovation is what I am highlighting.  Enezol and Achates are but companies I have noticed in just the last two months of scanning the trade press.  In an era where people are already demonstrating 18-wheelers getting 12 MPG, it is perfectly reasonable to expect the entrepreneurs will find ways to improve on a technology that supplies a worldwide market for forty or fifty million heavy-duty and medium-speed, diesel engines   Just in my career, the horsepower possible from a fourteen or fifteen-liter engine has increased from 280 to over 600.  I remember the engineers at Cummins Engine Company getting hives when someone suggested pulling 350 hp from their classic N14 engine block and crankshaft.

What about Toyota?  The third example is already with us in hybrid passenger car technology.  It improves fuel economy a third or more.   Hybrid cars allow their internal combustion motors to run in their constant-speed sweet spots while using stored electricity to cover the peaks in power requirements.  In addition, their regenerative braking recovers energy when the vehicle is braking or going downhill.  Cummins Engine Company is also moving down this road.

Do the Math: A 20% gain from fuel, a 25% gain from an opposed-piston prime mover, and a 30% gain from hybrid technology would combine for more than a 50% gain in fuel economy along with a proportional reduction in emissions.  And that is before we factor in improvements in batteries for the hybrid or any number of other changes.

Moving targets are hard to hit:  Here’s the point.  The tried and true Cummins or Detroit Diesel in that streamlined Kenworth is a moving target for the collection of more radical alternatives that currently get most of the press coverage.  We have already seen a slowing in natural gas adoption with the fall in diesel prices from the peaks of several years ago that got the natural gas proponents so excited.  None of the current alternatives would look very attractive when presented beside the three ideas below:

Diesel has a big head start:  We thus need to look at the march of technology in a more dynamic way.  Each technology moves on a path of steady improvement.  So the incumbents tend to last much longer than expected.  We saw that in rail locomotive technology in the first 30 years of the 20th Century, when electrification threatened the dominance of steam-powered trains.  The expected wholesale conversion of the networks did not occur, due to the steady development of larger, more efficient steam locomotives.     This is a positive beacon leading us to a 2030 future, where internal-combustion power plants will still dominate trucking.

Time is on the diesel’s side…for now:   New technologies do eventually take over, especially under two circumstances:  One is when a new technology’s improvement rate surpasses that of the old technology.  Eventually, the new entrant catches up, and moves ahead.   That process sent the big steam locomotives to the scrap yards when diesel locomotive made steady progress from the first crude design that appeared in 1924.  By 1946, it was apparent that diesel would win, and the last steamer left revenue service in 1959.    It is a good bet that electricity-based solution will demonstrate this process, gaining strong momentum in the 2030’s.

Some racers just have a lot more horsepower:  The second disrupter is when engineers come up with a radical improvement in performance.  The invention of the steam railroad made a century of canal building obsolete in twenty years    Similarly, fan jet engines, adopted in the 1960’s, were more powerful, more comfortable and way more reliable than the complex piston-powered engines they replaced.  Given the accelerating pace of change today, our grandchildren will surely benefit from radical improvements that are as difficult to foresee as the steam engine railroads were in the 1800s.

Just Keep Truckin’ On:   As we continue to evolve, we adapt to our current tools while moving forward towards the next horizon.  In 2019, that process means we spend equal time studying improvements to diesel technology as we do electrics, as both will help us move forward.  Put differently, there is no reason in 2019, or even over the next five years to bet your fleets future on electricity of natural gas, or any of the other radical new designs.  That may be necessary in ten years, but no now.  Your diesels will keep trucking’.

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