Part 1; This Isn't Your Father's Diesel

Randy Leonard

(Author’s note: I have owed the community a post regarding why I have been promoting biodiesel as an alternative form of passenger vehicle and truck fuel for some time. Part of my tardiness is due to my impression that many in the community are unaware of the benefits of modern diesel engines over gasoline engines irrespective of whether they burn petroleum diesel or biodiesel. To help make the discussion more manageable, I decided to break the subject of “biodiesel” into two different posts. This post will discuss the inherent advantages of a diesel engine vis-à-vis a gasoline engine in terms of increased longevity and fuel efficiency combined with a dramatic reduction in green house gases. The second part will discuss why biodiesel is a fuel source that many believe will help allow the US to wean itself from petroleum based fuels. That post will come soon.)

I am “thrifty”.

But please don’t accuse a thrifty soul like me of being “cheap.”

A cheap person will buy the least expensive of a number of different choices of a given product. A cheap person will consistently sacrifice quality and durability to save a buck.

A person that is thrifty, on the other hand, lives and breathes by the tenet “you get what you pay for”. In my case, I will pay more –sometimes considerably more- to buy a product that is well made and that I am convinced will last long enough to actually cost me less over the course of time than the “cheaper” alternative.

That is an excellent segue to discussing the comparative value of different cars and trucks in the market today. However, first I have to make a disclaimer.

I love cool cars and trucks. I don’t mean I just love them….I mean I LOVE them.

Even when I am not in the market for a car or truck, I habitually purchase every available magazine that road tests and ranks new vehicles for the upcoming model year. In addition, I buy every consumer reports book and magazine that rates cars and trucks and makes recommendations based on their own extensive research.

Because of my thrifty genetic predisposition and the inherent value-oriented qualities of diesel powered vehicles, our union was inevitable.

In 1998, I was in market for a new car. Like many people, my initial perception of diesel vehicles was based on the black smoke-emitting, unreliable version General Motors introduced in passenger vehicles in the 70’s. While this perception continues to exist today among American consumers (Thanks, GM!), I did my usual research and learned that diesel technology had advanced considerably to durable, low emission, high mile-per-gallon (mpg) vehicles that were virtually indestructible.

I took the plunge and bought a brand new Volkswagon Jetta TDI (Turbo Diesel Injected). I got an average 46 miles per gallon (city/highway). My Jetta diesel was comfortable, peppy and great looking.

And did I mention I got 46 miles per gallon?

Diesels that are high mpg and virtually indestructible? Low emissions? How could that be?

I am glad you asked.

Gasoline engines and diesel engines are very different technologies.

A gasoline engine is not able to run using diesel fuel whether it is petroleum diesel or “biodiesel” (more on the fuels in Part 2 of this post…coming soon). Gasoline engines run, of course, on gasoline that requires a “spark” to ignite the fuel/air mixture in each of the cylinders (thus “spark plugs”).

A diesel engine, on the other hand, does not have spark plugs (no spark plugs means no changing them…another major consideration for a “thrifty” person). The fuel/air mixture is compressed in a diesel cylinder under such high pressure that it causes the fuel/air mixture to combust. Thus, a diesel engine must be built much more durably than a gasoline engine to withstand the tremendous internal pressures. (This was the fatal flaw in the engineering of GM’s 70’s passenger diesel engines. They simply took a gasoline engine block and converted it to a diesel engine. The engine was often destroyed internally within the first 30,000 miles).

The inherent advantages of the modern diesel engine over gasoline engines are that they run more efficiently (anywhere from 20% to 40% more mpg) and are exponentially more durable than a gasoline engine. Additionally, diesel engines emit fewer green house gases.

However, even the modern diesel engine produces an unhealthy level of Nitrous Oxides—collectively called “NOx”— that contribute to smog, acid rain and global warming. These are among the most difficult pollutants to eliminate from diesel exhaust, because most technologies that reduce NOx also increase undesirable particulate emissions.

That information alone, for many (myself included), would doom the future of diesel technology if it were not for the new federal standards that mandate all diesel engines manufactured after January 1, 2007 dramatically lower their NOx emissions. Additionally, new federal rules on diesel fuel that took effect October 15th, 2006 mandate a 97% reduction of sulfur content in all diesel fuel sold in the US.

The upshot is that the new standards for the diesel engine and its fuel are so strict that diesel engines will be more efficient and “green” than a comparable gasoline engine... even more so when biodiesel is used…but I do not want to get ahead of myself.

So what does all of this mean to the average American?

A lot. One hell of a lot.

In Europe, over one half of all vehicles sold are diesel powered because of their dramatic increased efficiency and durability over a comparably sized gasoline engine. Most of the vehicles you see traversing Portland streets today are sold in Europe and Asia with diesel engines.

The reasons diesels have not caught on in the US include their persistent negative image (again, thanks to GM’s incompetence in the 70’s), the high sulfur content of diesel fuel and the high pollution associated with diesel engines that burn that fuel.

That is all changing. When the 2008 model year rolls out, the new generation of diesel engine will be powering that cute diesel VW Jetta, Bug and Golf (now called “Rabbit). Additionally, Honda, Ford, GM, Chrysler and a host of other manufacturers are burning the midnight oil developing diesels that will meet the new federal standards AND the predicted increased demand of the American consumer once these great new technologies hit the market.

The new diesels are green, efficient and durable. What more could a “thrifty” guy or gal want?

Next: Biodiesel. Learn why the great, new technological advances in diesel engines are made even better when you can “fill ‘er up” with a tank of fuel grown right here in Oregon.

  • what more? (unverified)

    how about a diesel hybrid?

  • (Show?)

    Don't think they exist - but I know plenty of folks that are waiting on them...

    I know nothing about cars other than how to turn the key - but I'm guessing that there's something about the way a hybrid turns off and on that conflicts with the functioning of a diesel engine (which, as Randy points out, doesn't explode the fuel)

  • (Show?)

    Check that. Great article on diesel hybrids from Wired.

    Amazing what you can learn from Google.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    doesn't explode the fuel All internal combustion engine explode the fuel. Diesels do it through compression, gas uses a spark. Diesels are fast too. Audi won the 24 hours at Le Mans with the R10, a V12 diesel powered race car.

    Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Marco Werner made history by becoming the first drivers to win the Le Mans 24-hour race in a diesel-powered car.

    The Audi R10 Diesel completed a record 380 laps of the La Sarthe circuit, with Pirro at the wheel for the finish. BBC News

  • (Show?)

    TriMet started testing hybrid diesel buses in 2002.

    They initially got two of them and as far as I can tell that's where things still stand. I'd guess that's because they are not living up to their fuel economy expectations. Seems Seattle jumped in with both feet and have been disappointed.

    I hope they work out the kinks and bring the manufacturing costs down soon. If you've ever stood on the curb next to one of those hybrids as it leaves a stop you'll recognize one of the reasons why. To me the great thing about hybrid buses is that they are much, much quieter than the normal diesel ones--especially when accelerating from a stop since that's prime time for the electric motor assist.

    A fleet of hybrid buses would make the Portland bus mall a very different place. It would be hard to overstate the improvement that would make in the heart of downtown.

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    Trimet was disappointed with the first generation of hybrid/diesel busses they tested, but seem to be having better luck with the newer models. There are definitely more than two of them now, as I see them very regularly on the 14 line (how appropriate) and occasionally on other lines as well (17).

  • Todd Hawes (unverified)

    I've enjoyed my VW TDI immensely since I purchased the car back in Feb. One thing about biodiesel and the new VWs. Anything other than BD5 (5% biodiesel/diesel blend) used to run your car will void the warranty. I will wait for my warranty to expire before I use biodiesel. In addition, this is the last year for the TDIs. I believe VW will withhold shipments of diesels for one year then start delivery of the new TSI diesels.

  • YoungerVoice (unverified)

    Wow. This has definitely sparked an interest for me. Hmmm... Merits further study. (And further bugging of my dad, "See? I can get a VW Bug AND be saving money on gas!"). sigh Maybe after I'm done paying for school.

  • Roger (unverified)

    "Additionally, diesel engines emit fewer green house gases."

    I don't think so as diesel fuel itself is more carbon intensive. You only get gains if the increase in fuel economy is great enough to offset the increased carbon and black carbon content of the fuel.

  • PeteJacobsen (unverified)

    As the owner of a Diesel Mercedes with 325K miles, and biodiesel for the last year, I think I qualify for "thrifty" as well.

    There are a couple things about diesels that should be noted however: 1) they are noiser than gas engines; 2) they cost more than gas engines (for a new pickup, it is about $5K more); and 3) A gallon of diesel requires about 25% more oil to produce than a gallon of unleaded gas (this from the Spring '04 issue of Catalyst, from the Union of Concerned Scientists). They also indicate that diesels are generally worse, not better, at greenhouse gases.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Short term, clean diesel is a solution, especially running vegetable oil. Long term, no fossil fuel vehicles are going to be practical, and fuel derived from farm grown crops face severasl problems:

    • considerable energy input is needed to produce them, especially if chemical fertilizers are used.
    • we have only so much arable land, not enough to fill our fuel needs and our food needs, and there is a limited amount of waste product available.
    • global warming is likely to make water for growing such crops more scarce.

    So, while diesels and hybrids are good stop gap measures, they won't support the kind of transportation system to which we have become accustomed. By far, the most important changes we can make is to stay home more, travel shorter distances, and use human powered locomotion when possible.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    Tom- Your concern re the energy produced from biofuels is accurate for ethanol but not biodiesel. Biodiesel actually creates two and one half times the energy than is used to create it. Further, the pulp that is left after the oil is crushed out is a high grade food pellet used for livestock feed. I will get into these issues in more detail in Part II of this post (hopefully next Sunday).

    Roger and Pete- Your concerns are accurate for existing diesels and fuel but are not accurate for the new generation of diesels and fuel that I spoke to (and linked) in this post.

    Todd- VW does not invalidate your warranty if you use more than 5% biodiesel. The warranty is voided for any fuel related problems...including biodiesel and petroleum diesel.

    The biodiesel required in Portland's ordinance requires it meets a minimum, industry accepted standard. More on that in the next post.

    What More?- Yes, hybrid diesels are being developed. Chrysler is working on a mid size auto diesel hybrid that is reported to get 75 miles per gallon. Other manufacturers report they are developing hybrid diesels that achieve 100 miles per gallon.

  • Ray Whitford (unverified)

    Bought my TDI in 2000 and will NOT go back to gasoline engines. Saw the future and the coming oil wars and decided to not support our habit as much as I can. I didn't know about bio-diesel until later.


  • Karl Smiley (unverified)

    Tom, Biodeisel frim algae may solve the problem long term. You don't neede to grow it on arable land. Total acreage needed would be much smaller. Some varieties are salt water. Google it.

  • chuck goolsbee (unverified)

    I am also thrifty (my Scots heritage), a neighbor (Washingtonian), also drive a Jetta TDI, and do run on fuel I make myself from waste vegetable oil, which I mix 50/50 with pump-bought petro-Diesel. I have run my '02 Jetta on this mixture for the past 2 years and have averaged 51 MPG on fuel that costs half as much as what everyone else pays.

    This is the 6th Diesel car I've owned in my life, so this is nothing new for me, but it boggles my mind why the USA has been so slow to realize how thrifty Diesel can be. Diesel fuel has more stored energy per gallon than gasoline and it is far safer to store and handle (it is not explosive like gasoline).

    As for "Diesel Hybrids" they have been around since the 1940s. Every locomotive since the demise of steam has been powered by a Diesel-Electric drive. The whole reason for the development of hybrid cars was to meet California's mandate for X% of vehicles being sold being electric. Period. They were not designed for fuel economy, or long life durability. Fuel economy is a "side benefit" of Hybrid cars, not the goal. The German car makers were actually the very first to develop hybrids (VW built a 1-cyl Diesel-Electric car in the 1980s which topped 100 MPG) but the perception of Diesels in the US market is such that the car makers felt they would not sell, so instead we have gasoline based hybrids.

    I work with batteries as part of my profession and have NO desire to be driving around in a car with half a ton of batteries! They lose efficiency over their lifetime and become very hazardous in their last months, or if they are subjected to high stress, such as in an accident.

    Americans will never stop eating french fries, so I'll have an steady stream of free fuel for my cars (my wife now drives a Diesel too) and, as your readers will find out in your second part, I'm doing less harm to the planet running on edible fuel.


  • mark m. (unverified)

    Where is all this biofuel going to come from? How much land in Oregon do you want to set aside for biodiesel farms? There is not close to enough frying oil to go around and soybean crops only yield 40 gallons an acre. Think about it. How much open space can we afford to lose? The land being cleared for biofuels is in it's infancy but already causing widespread destruction as third world countries discover they can 'grow oil.' Biofuel has the potential to do more environmental damage than we have ever seen with petroleum fuels. Anti-biofuel movement is gaining strength.

    ‘In the absence of governmental constraints, the rising price of oil could quickly become the leading threat to biodiversity, ensuring that the wave of extinctions now under way does indeed become the sixth great extinction.’

    Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    Mark- The link you gave is an article critical of using Palm Oil as a source of biodiesel because of clear cutting of Palm jungles in Asia.

    I agree with that concern and that is why the Portland ordinance will prohibit the use of Palm Oil.

    We are restricting the supply to first come from NW Canola and the balance to come from soybean in the mid west.

    As to the rest of your concerns I would encourage you to read the links I have provided in the post.

  • Sue Wright (unverified)

    I live in Kenai Alaska and have purchased a used Jetta TDI Wagon. I am so happy with it. It is a bit noisy but I grew up with diesels and can go to sleep with one running on the boat. It is an incredible car with 46 mpg. I can go to Anchorage 160 miles rt on $25.00. Not bad and thats with diesel at 2.89

  • Chris (unverified)

    Does anyone know if bio-diesel can contaminate water supplies like petroleum diesel?

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