Replacement? Ethanol Turbo Boost For Gas Engines
Is the abrupt increase in diesel fuel prices discouraging automakers from pursuing future diesel products? So far, no Detroit manufacturer that had promised a diesel engine for its half-ton truck has had a change of heart, and makers of heavy-duty engines for three-quarter and one-ton models are still on track to meet 2010 emissions regulations. But there's plenty of buzz in the industry questioning the viability of the compression engine and its heavy, now-expensive fuel.
For a long time, diesel fuel offered a cost advantage to truck consumers, but that advantage has been slipping away since the turn of the century. According to the Energy Information Administration, diesel fuel has cost more than gasoline since 2005. That’s about the time oil companies started switching over to ultra-low-sulfur diesel, which was required of all retail locations by September 2006. Making things worse, the added cost of buying a diesel versus a gas engine surged when new hardware was required in order to meet 2007 emissions requirements.
Even with rising costs, the diesel market boomed earlier this decade as new customer bases, including pop-culture artists and athletes, purchased heavy-duty trucks. The current volatility, however, is culling out the maverick-image buyer, and diesel penetration in the three-quarter and one-ton market has dropped to just 50 percent. Two years ago, the split in that segment was as high as 75 percent diesel engines for some companies.
The diesel truck’s core value -- delivering brutish torque -- still attracts a sizeable consumer segment that tows or hauls heavy loads. However, the sudden shakeup in the heavy-duty market has truck manufacturers struggling to find a non-diesel engine that can offer extreme power at a more attractive operating cost.
Ford, in partnership with a group of MIT scientists, may be closing in on a radical twin-fuel engine technology that could be production-ready in the next three to five years. According to officials, this engine can deliver diesel-like power numbers with a more reasonable initial cost and without using high-priced diesel fuel and its expensive emissions requirements.
The scientists formed a company called Ethanol Boosting Systems and developed the technology based on computer simulations. This virtual model starts with a small but highly turbocharged gas/ethanol engine with separate injectors for each cylinder. The gasoline system mixes fuel with air in a normal air/fuel ratio using port injection in the intake manifold. The second system injects ethanol directly into the combustion chamber to control detonation, or knocking.
According to EBS, such an engine has numerous advantages over hybrids and diesels, including lower cost, reduced emissions and improved fuel economy. More important, though, the design would be most beneficial in trucks and other high-torque applications.
"Ethanol boosting is basically a natural extension of a gas, turbocharged, direct-injected engine already out there," says Daniel Cohn, the CEO of EBS and a research scientist at MIT. "It just takes it a step further."