COLUMN: Diesel technology holds green technology
When one thinks of diesel vehicles, the first thoughts that come to mind are they are loud, dirty and have higher fuel costs. But in the last 20 years, advancements in diesel technology and the understanding of its potential have raised questions regarding the side-by-side comparison of diesel and gasoline engines.
Despite its reputation, diesel engines have actually proved to be better technology — all they require is cleaner fuels.
In terms of power, the diesel engine combusts at a more gradual rate than the gasoline, allowing an increase in horsepower to be conveyed at lower revolutions per minute (RPMs). However, the gasoline engine is faster from a complete stop because it reaches higher RPMs overall. The diesel engine also tends to be louder than the gasoline engine, irritating some consumers.
When it comes to performance, the diesel engine begins to turn some heads. The efficient combustion process and the higher energy content of the diesel engine allow cars to travel a minimum of 30 percent farther per gallon. The costs lie within diesel fuel: it takes 25 percent more oil to make a gallon of diesel fuel than a gallon of gasoline. Additionally, more hazardous soot particles are released, making the efficiency drop about 20 percent further despite better mileage.
The diesel engine itself is superior in power, capacity, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. This efficiency benefits oil reduction, climate change and consumer savings. The only problem is that pesky, dirty fuel.
How about versatility? We have hybrid gasoline cars, but to run different fuels you need additional mechanical components to ensure the engine can function properly. What about diesel?
This is where the diesel engine takes the cake. For those desperate to get off dirty oil, the diesel engine can run on countless varieties of bio-fuel without modification, according to "FUEL," a documentary that explores the nation's dependance on foreign oil. Corn, soy, sugar, algae, animal fats or — my personal favorite — vegetable oil, all can be used as a primary fuel for diesel engines.
Recently, John Petsche, a mechanical engineer, made it his hobby to convert a Kawasaki KZ400 motorcycle to run on a six-horsepower diesel engine using vegetable oil.
During the Loring Timing Association, Petsche set a record speed of 56 miles per hour and got an astonishing 100 miles per gallon efficiency. The 100-mpg mark has become a target for efficiency enthusiasts and many have managed to meet the mark, but that isn’t good business strategy for big car companies, unfortunately.
Clearly in terms of mechanics, the diesel engine is the winner. The folly is the fuel to which we choose to remain bound. The diesel engine is neither new nor unused; it is the most widely used engine on the planet. Every train, boat, factory, tractor, crane and semi-truck has been powered by diesel engines steadily for the last 100 years.
Supposedly, the infrastructure does not exist for diesel engines or the biofuels we would need to run them cleanly. But what if every fast food restaurant in the country — those dozens we see on every exit and street corner — passed a collective resolution to put used vegetable oil toward biofuels? Rather than wasting millions of dollars disposing of it as waste, we can refine it into tens (even hundreds) of millions of dollars in domestic, clean, renewable energy. McDonald’s and other companies have caught onto this concept to power their delivery trucks, which run on diesel engines of course. In Europe, more than 80 percent of McDonald’s vegetable oil gets converted to biofuel. Why not here?
If someone can argue that refining vegetable oil is more costly or complicated than refining oil from thousands of feet underground, by all means come forth. Fast food restaurants already collect massive, industrial amounts of vegetable oil at the end of each production day. All you have to do is refine it, as opposed to searching for it. Of course, if this doesn’t suit you, remember you always have the luxury of choosing a different bio-fuel. Maybe algae? Either way, you do not have to modify your diesel car.
Europe has demonstrated first-hand the success of the diesel engine, with 40 percent of their automobile sales every year attributed to diesel cars. While taxes in Europe have fought to make the diesel a more popular choice, the U.S. federal government taxes diesel at a rate of 25 percent higher than gasoline.
With diesel engines pushing the efficiency limits of U.S. hybrid-gasoline engines and in many cases exceeding them, interest in diesel cars has increased. But to get the most out of our more reliable technologies, we need to use the most reliable fuels.
We have had the ability to utilize this efficient engine cleanly for decades; now, it's time for the knowledge to go viral. Hopefully by then the American public won’t have to wait much longer for an embrace of this versatile, resilient, sustainable solution to our problems in private transportation.
Andrew Sartain is an interdisciplinary perspectives on the environment & nonprofit management senior.