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Chicago Lab Promotes Advances in Green Diesel Technology

The diesel-powered Audi A3 TDI was voted 2010 Green Car of the Year by Green Car Journal
The diesel-powered Audi A3 TDI was voted 2010 Green Car of the Year by Green Car Journal

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Kane Farabaugh

In October, the U.S. Transportation and Energy Departments announced plans to increase fuel efficiency for future vehicles manufactured and sold in the Unites States.  Under current regulations, those vehicles would need to meet a fuel efficiency standard of 15 kilometers per liter by 2016.  Tighter restrictions would apply to cars and trucks manufactured beginning in 2017.  To meet the demand, manufacturers are turning to battery-powered technology and electric-gasoline hybrids to meet the new restrictions.  But as VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, an often overlooked and historically maligned technology is already available, that could provide a short-term solution to higher fuels standards.

When people think of diesel, images of loud engines, and dirty, smelly exhaust fill the mind of drivers in the U.S. who turned away from the technology in the 1980s.

"You think of smoke and buses.  You think of the truck you were stuck behind that the engine was way out of speck and the black cloud that you were in," noted Don Hillebrand, the director of Transportation Research at the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.  Hillebrand leads a team of engineers advancing diesel technology.

"There have been some bad American made diesels back in the 70s and 80s that really gave diesel a bad name.  But the fact is that is ancient history. Diesels have changed substantially. They are not the same vehicles they were back then," added Hillebrand.

In fact, for the last three years, the winner of the Green Car Journal's Green Car of the Year has a diesel engine.

This year's winner, the 2010 Audi A3 TDI, gets up to 18 kilometers per liter, making it one of the more fuel efficient, vehicles on the road.

"Looking at gas mileage, it's probably even a tradeoff between hybrids and diesels because conventional diesels - not even in a hybrid vehicle - gets probably about the same gas mileage as a gasoline hybrid," noted Thomas Wallner, a research engineer at Argonne.

Wallner has studied diesel engines, mainly from Europe, to stir development in the United States.

"But certainly it's an alternative here in the U.S. because the market share, especially in the automotive markets, is very low - it's in the single digits, while in Europe it's 50 percent," Wallner added.

Wallner says the challenge in increasing sales in the U.S. is overcoming the stigma associated with diesel.  He says lack of infrastructure is another problem.

"One of the issues that we see right now is as the number of diesels increase in the U.S., we realize that not all the gas stations - and we call them gas stations - have diesel for automotive applications, so I think that's something that keeps consumers from buying diesel cars," explained Wallner.

European manufacturers, such as Audi and Volkswagen, make many of the cars the engineers at Argonne are studying.  Hillebrand says European brands dominate the U.S. market at the moment due to a lack of interest among American car makers.

"Many of the American based companies make outstanding diesel engines, but they only sell them overseas.  They don't actually sell them in North American," said Hillebrand.

Hillebrand says even though diesel still uses fossil fuel to power the engine, it is an important technology that paves the way for eventual energy independence by using less fuel.

"The diesel can give you an extra 30 percent fuel economy, which is a substantial amount of carbon reduction and a substantial amount of cost savings," Hillebrand explained.

He adds that increasing interest in the technology by educating consumers is one way drivers can get behind the wheel of some of the most fuel efficient, and environmentally friendly, vehicles on the road.  

U.S. manufacturers have taken notice.  Ford has a variety of new diesel vehicles for sale in Europe that it could easily introduce to the U.S. marketplace.

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