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The efficient choice among combustion engines


Innovative hybrid diesel engine developed to run on natural gas

Researchers at ETH Zurich have developed an internal combustion engine that emits less than half the CO2 compared to a regular engine without compromising performance. This corresponds to fuel consumption of less than 2.4l per 100km. This natural gas-diesel hybrid engine is based on a system of sophisticated control engineering.

The global energy markets are changing. New extraction methods are tapping into oilfields and natural gas deposits that have been inaccessible until now. The US, for example, is able to cover up to 83% of its total energy needs today; the government is even planning to increase exports of natural gas in the future. And there are new developments on the horizon: natural gas may also become an important fuel for vehicles on America’s roads, thanks to the work of Swiss researchers at the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zurich. They have developed a natural gas-diesel hybrid powertrain that emits just half the CO2 without compromising performance.

Diesel fuel injection instead of an ignition plug

ETH researchers redesigned the conventional diesel engine of a VW Golf to run on 90% natural gas. Instead of a spark plug as is standard with natural gas en-gines, the engine is ignited with a small amount of diesel injected directly into the cylinder. In doing so, the researchers were able to achieve a highly efficient combustion with a maximum efficiency of 39.6%.

Natural gas-diesel engines already exist, and are used industrially where power is generated and used in one place – for example to operate large machinery. “In a vehicle, the engine speed and load change constantly, which means the engine system is far more complicated,” explains Tobias Ott, a doctoral student in Professor Lino Guzzella’s research group.

Innovative electronic combustion control

Ott developed the innovative electronic combustion control together with senior scientist Christopher Onder as part of his dissertation. A sensor that measures pressure in the cylinders plays a key part: using complex control algorithms, the researchers were able to adapt the amount and timing of diesel continually, allowing an engine system with highest efficiency. The researchers also linked the innovative natural gas-diesel engine to a small electric motor to further reduce consumption. However, it could also be installed in a vehicle without electric hybridisation, which would be crucial for industrial production in larger quantities.

Mass production – a possibility in five years’ time

The researchers demonstrated the reduction in emissions with experiments on a specially designed test rig and recently published the results in the specialist journal Energies. This proof of concept also involves solving final technical prob-lems. “At the moment, we are concentrating particularly on the temperature in the catalytic converter,” says Ott. For the converter to get up and running, it has to reach at least 300 degrees. “Our combustion engine converts heat energy into mechanical energy with such efficiency that the exhaust gas is not warm enough to create sufficient heat, particularly after start-up,” adds Ott. The researchers want to solve the problem by modified control of the engine during the warm-up.

Christopher Onder is convinced that the natural gas-diesel engine can be produced in series production in five years. “The prerequisite is that we find an industrial partner who can take charge of developing a prototype,” he explains. The researchers believe that the success of their engine depends critically on its production costs. They stress that their solution may not be cheap, but it is comparatively cost-effective. And because their concept is based on technology that already exists, it can be implemented quickly and is the perfect bridging technology for the next 10 to 20 years. The researchers are already engaged in negotiations with a car manufacturer.

15 Comments on "The efficient choice among combustion engines"

  1. GregT on Mon, 23rd Dec 2013 6:16 pm 

    “Researchers at ETH Zurich have developed an internal combustion engine that emits less than half the CO2 compared to a regular engine without compromising performance.”

    Well, isn’t that wonderful. Now all we need to do is convert the entire world’s fleet of automobiles, to give us the small hope, of not frying the planet for another ten years or so.

  2. Bob Inget on Mon, 23rd Dec 2013 7:12 pm 

    article first appears August 28th 2013

    Several HD CNG engines are already in mass production in the USA.This hybrid, still in experimental stage, may be even more efficient, we don’t know.

    Honda sells a Civic powered by CNG.
    GM and Chrysler will be selling pick-ups
    also so configured.

    NG while homegrown and widely available,
    offers users fewer BTU’s than diesel or gasoline but, as they say, “makes it up in volume”.

  3. DC on Mon, 23rd Dec 2013 7:50 pm 

    The most efficient combustion engine, is the one that never gets built or used. Fact is, ‘efficient’ diesel engines have existed almost since day one. Only corporate greed and control of ‘innovation’ have kept them off the market for as long as they have. Not any lack of technical know-how. 20 years ago I had a very efficent mitsubishi turbo-diesel truck. over 40mpg when I first bought it. I traded it in years ago and have regretted it ever since….

  4. Norm on Mon, 23rd Dec 2013 10:02 pm 

    Fascinating article cause they never built the engine, but want you to be misled that they did. If no prototype, it is BS more welfare pork to researchers who sleep in.

  5. James A. Hellams on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 12:50 am 

    In reference to Mr. Inget’s remark about natural gas thermal content and diesel fuel thermal content; I offer the following comparison.

    Natural gas has a thermal content of 1,000 BTUs per cubic foot. One gallon of diesel fuel has a thermal content of 136,000 BTUs per gallon.

    To get enough natural gas to equal the thermal content of one gallon of diesel fuel, you would need 136 cubic feet of natural gas.

    Now, think of the number of gallons of diesel fuel used to fill the tanks of a car, truck, or locomotive; and you will see how big the fuel storage has to be for natural gas, even if it is compressed.

    Additionally, you would have to consider how much patience would some one need to have; while waiting for all the natural gas to be pumped in to the tank!

  6. rollin on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 2:04 am 

    I don’t think commercial car manufacturers have come anywhere near the design of a peak efficiency car. They design for many other parameters and tweak for mpg.
    To achieve high mpg they make extremely small expensive clown cars like the prius. Good to carry a person or two uncomfortably and a few shoe boxes.

  7. Makati1 on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 5:39 am 

    The comments above cover the situation very well. Nuff said.

  8. Arthur on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 9:29 am 

    The Greeks are abandoning their cars in massive numbers due to 40% loss of income.

    In Holland the average occupation rate of the standard five seater clunker is 1.25.

    I am sure this figure applies to the rest of the west as well.

    In other words, you can potentially transport FOUR times as many people for the same fuel bill. Now that everybody has a location aware smart phone, all of a sudden we have the phantastic opportunity to match supply and demand for private transportation. In the near future, after the crash, I can imagine governments simply imposing measures where drivers are forced to accept paying passengers on long distance routes. It is admittedly not pleasant, but the potential is there. Imagine you enter a highway via a French style station, where tens of people are waiting for transport. You as a driver enter your destination in your smart phone and next the server matches that destination with does of the passengers with the same gps location. A best match will be made and 0-4 persons waiting on the platform are notified per sms that they are invited to go to the black Mercedes with license number so and so. Women with women only. All ID’s are known to the server (and the NSA) for security reasons. Payment is done automatically with the same phone. Persons without serious violent criminal record only.

  9. Makati1 on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 10:04 am 

    Arthur, after the crash privately owned cars will be a thing of the past for all but the 1%. The roads will disintegrate even faster than they already are. No repairs and most will be useless in 10 years or less. And the internet will disappear for the masses also, for the same lack of resources/cash. No one wil care about Facebook when they are trying to survive.

  10. Kenz300 on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 4:22 pm 

    Electric vehicles are the future……..

    They are growing in popularity around the world and as economies of scale kick in their prices will continue to fall.

  11. Arthur on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 4:27 pm 

    Arthur, after the crash privately owned cars will be a thing of the past for all but the 1%.

    I can see that you have never been to Havana, which does not come as a surprise, since you have a US passport. I have been there and it was quit a hilarious experience to see all these 1950s American cars still driving around in 200x:

    Cubans are rather poor, but still many have a car.

    After the crash, most US households will continue to have a car, but will use it only sparingly and economically, meaning trying to get paying passengers on board. With proper maintenance you can drive the same car for another half a century.

  12. DC on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 5:50 pm 

    Sorry Art, I know Cuba is your favorite example of the ‘durability’ of cars-only transportation. However, most of the cars you see running around in cuba, are vastly simply(primitive really) than than the over-engineered trash cans now plying the roads. Once global supply dry up, all those EFI and CPU laden cars wont last very long. Those ancient clunkers are easy to fabricate parts for, modern cars, forget it. The will run until they no longer can, then they will stop, for good. There wont be any ‘cuba-like’ extension for us. As things stand now, you need a complex, high-tech computer just to tell a TRAINED mechanic in a fully equipped shop what is actually wrong with your trash-can. If the amerikans had embargoed Cuba in say, the 1990+, and they had a full compliment of ‘modern’ cars, only a few, if any of them would operational in 2010. The only way extend the life of a EFI-computer car is to keep pulling parts of dead cars(and only form identical models)-but that wont get you anything like the decades the Cubans could get out of there stone-ages cars.

    And dont pull one of you but-but you can do X instead to keep your computer controlled working for decades. Ive been told NUMEROUS times by trained mechanics that modern cars are very hard to maintain without complex diagnostic tools, global supply chains, and a most important-trained techs. Parts, are often model specific and have poor adaptability across model lines and manufacturers.

    Sorry again Arthur, Computer cars wont be available in anything near the extent they are in Cuba currently. Only the govt or lucky few that own really old clunkers and actually know to work on them, will have much mobility. And thats IF they can get fuel.

  13. Arthur on Tue, 24th Dec 2013 9:38 pm 

    I don’t expect either that modern day cars will make it another half a century. The difference with the Cuban example is that in the case of Cuba over the past 50 years there was no (real) global fuel crisis. That is not going to be the case with the modern cars. But Bill (or whatever he wants himself to be called these days) insisted that the car economy would break down almost immediately after the crash of the global financial system. And that assertion was a little too bold for my taste. My point is that there could very well be a transition period, much shorter than 50 years, where the old global car fleet can be used for say another 10 years, by using the possibilities of location aware smart phones to dramatically increase the ‘fuel efficiency’ of old clunkers by actually making sure every seat is occupied and in this way enable the transition towards a less transportation dependent localized economy of the future.

    For the future I expect the rise of 2 wheel single or dual seater vehicles, not the ridiculous outdated idea of moving the complete living room furniture around (5 seats). Like this:

  14. Kenz300 on Wed, 25th Dec 2013 3:50 am 

    My last vehicle had 300,000 miles on it when I upgraded for a newer used vehicle. It was still running strong when I sold it. Vehicles can last a very long time if you care for them properly.

  15. Arthur on Wed, 25th Dec 2013 7:27 am 

    My Volvo240 had 400k km on the counter when I ‘kissed it goodbye’. It is possibly still drivinng somewhere in Russia or the Ukraine.

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