By Mike Hanley on August 24, 2010
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago is synonymous with the rise of nuclear power in the last century, but it's currently improving a technology that could already be sitting in your garage: the diesel engine.
Despite offering significantly better fuel economy than comparable gas engines, diesels have failed to attract a large audience in the U.S. There are a number of reasons for this, but as automakers introduce more diesel-powered cars in the U.S., scientists at Argonne National Laboratory are working on ways to improve diesels.
"[Diesel] technology is wonderful, and we're glad that people are going to be driving it — it's available today — but we're looking ahead," said Steve Ciatti, mechanical engineer at Argonne's Center for Transportation Research. "The latest work that I'm doing right now in fact has to do with running a diesel engine on lousy-quality gasoline. It sounds strange but, it's true."
"In an effort to pursue more reductions in emissions levels and even higher efficiency and more robustness, we're always trying to press that envelope of science and technology."
The diesel engine that's the subject of Ciatti's efforts is a 1.9-liter motor from GM Europe. With testing conducted thus far, Ciatti says he's been able to retain the traditional fuel economy benefits of a diesel while producing the cleaner exhaust signature of a gas engine, with relatively minimal degradation in power.
Mass-produced, this type of technology could address a number of transportation-related issues. Lower fuel consumption and emissions levels are the most apparent — and arguably the most important — benefits, but there are potentially other benefits to fuel providers and consumers. The experimental engine is running around 65-octane gasoline, which is cheaper for oil companies to produce because it doesn't require as many additives as regular pump gas. Giving a diesel the ability to run on gas addresses the problem of limited diesel fuel availability in some parts of the U.S., which is another stumbling block to widespread acceptance.
"[GM is] very interested in the gasoline work that I'm doing," Ciatti said. GM provides engines and technical assistance to support the work but doesn't contribute money. It's a far cry from where GM was 30 years ago, when it and other automakers like Ford had commanding market share and huge R&D operations, Ciatti says.
"These days [the automakers are] more concerned about staying financially afloat," Ciatti said. "That's just the practical economic reality."
While much of Argonne's work is confined to the lab at the moment, it may not be a few years from now. One of Argonne's projects is to find ways to increase the efficiency of commercial diesel trucks, which are heavy users of diesel fuel, and there's the expectation that the work will result in a new truck sitting in Washington, D.C., in three to five years, according to Argonne researcher Thomas Wallner. Perhaps the gas-powered diesel engine isn't far away, either.
Senior Editor Mike Hanley is a father of three boys; he reviews new cars, admires classic cars and has embraced the minivan lifestyle. Email Mike