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freedomCAR & vehicle technologies program

U.S. Department of Energy • Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Just the Basics


Diesel Engine
Today’s direct-injection diesel engines start the explosions with Less dependence on foreign
engines are more rugged, sparks from spark plugs, whereas in
powerful, durable, and diesel engines, fuel ignites on its own. oil, and eventual transition
reliable than gasoline
Air heats up when it’s compressed.
engines, and use fuel much
This fact led German engineer Rudolf
to an emissions-free,
more efficiently, as well.
Diesel to theorize that fuel could be petroleum-free vehicle
made to ignite spontaneously if the air
Diesel Engines Yesterday, inside an engine’s cylinders
Today, and Tomorrow became hot enough through
compression. Achieving high Diesel Fuel Ignition
Diesels are workhorse engines. That’s temperatures meant producing Intake Fuel Exhaust
why you find them powering heavy- much greater air compression Valve Injector Valve
duty trucks, buses, tractors, and trains, than occurs in gasoline Intake Exhaust
not to mention large ships, bulldozers, engines, but Diesel saw that Air Gases
cranes, and other construction as a plus. According to his Cylinder
equipment. In the past, diesels fit calculations, high compression Head
the stereotype of muscle-bound behe- should lead to high engine
moths. They were dirty and sluggish, efficiency. Part of the reason Cylinder
smelly and loud. That image doesn’t is that compressing air concen- Wall
apply to today’s diesel engines, trates fuel-burning oxygen.
however, and tomorrow’s diesels will Piston
A fuel that has high energy
show even greater improvements. content per gallon, like diesel
They will be even more fuel efficient, fuel, should be able to react
more flexible in the fuels they can use, with most of the concentrated
and also much cleaner in emissions. oxygen to deliver more punch
per explosion, if it was
How Diesel Engines Work injected into an engine’s cylin-
ders at exactly the right time.
Like a gasoline engine, a diesel is an
internal combustion engine that Diesel’s calculations were
converts chemical energy in fuel to correct. As a result, although
mechanical energy that moves pistons diesel engines have seen vast
up and down inside enclosed spaces improvements, the basic
called cylinders. The pistons are concept of the four-stroke Crankshaft
connected to the engine’s crankshaft, diesel engine has remained
which changes their linear motion virtually unchanged for over
into the rotary motion needed to 100 years. The first stroke
propel the vehicle’s wheels. With both involves drawing air into a In the modern direct-injection diesel engine,
gasoline and diesel engines, energy is cylinder as the piston creates space for fuel combustion is confined to a specially
released in a series of small explosions it by moving away from the intake shaped region within the head of each piston.
(combustion) as fuel reacts chemically valve. The piston’s subsequent upward There, diesel fuel ignites spontaneously, yet
with oxygen from the air. Diesels differ swing then compresses the air, heating in a carefully controlled manner. Old-style
from gasoline engines primarily in the it at the same time. Next, fuel is indirect-injection diesels were not capable
way the explosions occur. Gasoline injected under high pressure as the of this precision. As a result, fuel efficiency
suffered and emissions soared.

Bringing you a prosperous future where energy is clean, abundant, reliable, and affordable
Just the Basics: Diesel Engine

piston approaches the top of its of as NOx) and particulate matter (PM)
compression stroke, igniting sponta- have been reduced by over 90 percent
neously as it contacts the heated air. since 1980, as well. Nevertheless, NOx
The hot combustion gases expand, and PM emissions remain at relatively
driving the piston downward in high levels. NOx contributes to acid
what’s called the power stroke. During rain and smog, while adverse health
its return swing, the piston pushes effects have been associated with
spent gases from the cylinder, and exposures to high PM amounts.
the cycle begins again with an intake
of fresh air.
What Improvements
How Diesel Engines Have Need to Be Made?
Diesel engines are already more
Improved efficient than gasoline engines (45
Older diesel engines mixed fuel and percent versus 30 percent), and further
air in a precombustion chamber before advances are possible (to 55-63
injecting it into a cylinder. The mixing percent). Widespread use of diesel
and injection steps were controlled engines, particularly in trucks, vans, A Strong Energy Portfolio
mechanically, which made it very and sport utility vehicles, therefore for a Strong America
difficult to tailor the fuel-air mixture promises to substantially reduce
to changing engine conditions. This United States dependence on foreign
Energy efficiency and clean,
led to incomplete fuel combustion, petroleum products. The stumbling
particularly at low speeds. As a result, block to reaching this goal, however, renewable energy will mean
fuel was wasted and tailpipe emissions remains NOx and PM emissions.
were relatively high. Unfortunately, increasing diesel a stronger economy, a cleaner
efficiency does not necessarily make
Today’s diesels inject fuel directly these emissions go away. environment, and greater energy
into an engine’s cylinders using tiny
computers to deliver precisely the Three basic strategies are being independence for America. Working
right amount of fuel the instant it pursued to meet the U.S. Environ-
is needed. All functions in a modern mental Protection Agency’s with a wide array of state, community,
diesel engine are controlled by an increasingly stringent emissions industry, and university partners,
electronic control module that standards. The first concerns research
communicates with an elaborate array into the diesel combustion process the U.S. Department of Energy's
of sensors placed at strategic locations to better understand how soot parti-
throughout the engine to monitor cles and NOx gases form. The second Office of Energy Efficiency and
everything from engine speed to involves development of NOx and
coolant and oil temperatures and PM removal technologies to eliminate Renewable Energy invests in a diverse
even piston position. Tight electronic residual emissions in much the same portfolio of energy technologies.
control means that fuel burns more way that catalytic converters eradicate
thoroughly, delivering more power, emissions from gasoline engines.
greater fuel economy, and fewer The third research area relates to
emissions than yesterday’s diesel improving diesel fuels. The U.S.
engines could achieve. Department of Energy is working
with engine manufacturers and fuel
Modern direct-injection diesel suppliers to develop diesel fuels
engines produce low amounts of that are optimized for today’s and
carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, tomorrow’s advanced diesel engines.
and unburned hydrocarbons. The new fuel formulations will enable
Emissions of reactive nitrogen both high fuel economy and very August 2003
compounds (commonly spoken low emissions.
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For more information, visit www.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels or call 1-800-DOE-3732