by Bryan Knight
Engine Development Engineer, Achates Power, Inc.
In an age where the national news is dominated by reports on rising fuel costs and greenhouse gas regulations, consumers are aware of the different alternative fuels that promise to save money at the pump and reduce tailpipe emissions. These fuels—such as natural gas, ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen—are designed to decrease the carbon footprint of vehicles; market penetration, however, has been slower than expected. Ultimately, a significant reduction in fuel costs and carbon emissions will not be realized by a new fuel type alone, but rather by a better internal combustion engine that substantially increases the efficiency of our vehicles.
A study that addressed the question of why alternative fuels have showed slow adoption was completed at the Institute of Transportation Studies in 2007. It examined the adoption of natural gas vehicles in several countries, including the United States. For widespread acceptance of natural gas to take place, it is of paramount importance to implement a sufficient fueling infrastructure. As summarized in a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the lack of infrastructure for alternative fuels continues to pose the greatest barrier to widespread adoption in the U.S. Time has shown that alternatives without a dedicated infrastructure will fail to saturate the market. As such, we need to reevaluate fuels, such as diesel, which already have a mature infrastructure in place.
Earlier this year, Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, a member of the board of management of Daimler Trucks and Buses, surprised listeners in a keynote address by saying “My alternative fuel is diesel,” and “I don’t see any replacement of diesel in the near future, not even in the long run.” Dr. Bernhard reminds us that diesel fuel has often been overlooked, and he is convinced that “a highly efficient diesel engine will be [the way] to reduce emissions.”
Only through a substantial increase in the efficiency of current engines can we decrease our dependence on petroleum and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As summarized in a market report compiled by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2013 for the U.S. Department of Energy, the transportation sector accounted for 71% of total U.S. petroleum use—more petroleum than the U.S. produced annually. This cost the economy $500 billion in 2012 and accounted for 33% of total CO2 emissions nationwide. Stop for a second to think about the magnitude of these numbers. To lessen our dependence on oil and reduce emissions to the environment, it does not come as a surprise that the engines in our vehicles need to be much more efficient.
The vision at Achates Power—to design a better internal combustion engine that is both environmentally and economically sustainable—is perfectly aligned with these global challenges. Our modernization of the opposed-piston architecture has allowed us to achieve increased engine efficiency that results in substantial reductions in CO2 emissions. With the publication of our latest light-duty engine performance and emissions results, we have shown that our engine has the potential to meet stringent Tier 3/LEV III emissions and CAFE 2025 while delivering a 30% fuel economy improvement over modern diesel engines equipped with the most advanced technologies. These benefits also apply to fuels other than diesel. In fact, we have already done extensive testing with natural gas and will continue to optimize our architecture so that it works with the best fuels available on the market. Using our technology, the world can decrease its petroleum dependence while, at the same time, reduce harmful pollutant emissions.
Dr. Bernhard’s hypothesis may be proved correct in time; diesel, with its significant infrastructure and high efficiency potential will not be replaced. However, in order to meet future efficiency and emissions targets around the globe, the internal combustion engine is due for some exciting changes, and we are passionate in our vision to get us there.