A quick history of the diesel engine
Diesel engines grew up right alongside traditional gasoline powered engines. Even though the actual development and application of these internal combustion power plants were as different as it gets.
An efficient engine for sure, the origins of the diesel engine history start with a German engineer teaming up with a Frenchman. They were both looking to find ways to increase the efficiency and dependability of the combustion engine.
What they created is nothing short of a modern marvel. They created a power plant that we continue to take advantage of today. It’s likely that we will for years and years to come!
Here’s a quick look into the diesel engine history!
Early diesel engine history
When Rudolph Diesel first began to tinker around with a new way to create a combustion engine, he was most excited by the major leaps and bounds of a French engineer by the name of Sadi Carnot. Sadi Carnot had made many advances to find an ingenious way to compress air and use it as the “ignition fuel”.
By using this new technique in conjunction with the traditional combustion engine, Diesel and Carnot were able to create a self-contained system. They had designed a new type of engine where the ignition was generated by the heat of compression. This eliminated entirely the need for a “traditional ignition source” such as a spark plug.
They were eager to test their new engine. They were upset that petroleum products – namely gasoline – weren’t nearly as readily available for their testing as they had thought. The gasoline that they did have access to was very expensive.
Diesel and Carnot had no option but to find a way to use a different fuel source. They decided to experiment with peanut oil as their fuel source. They did this because there were an abundance of peanut farms around their laboratory.
This became the first instance of biofuel. While today’s modern biofuel is significantly different chemically, it’s all created on the back of the same science that Diesel and Carnot originally pioneered.
Diesel engines in the Pre- and Post-War Years
The first few experimental diesel combustion engines exploded. Three of them blew up spectacularly in 1893, and it wasn’t until 1896 that they were able to create a more stable, and substantially overbuilt, prototype. This stronger design allowed them to experiment with new applications.
Tremendously expensive at first, Diesel spent the overwhelming majority of their research money focusing on securing patents. He made patent investments that often delayed the production of the new engines.
However, production rapidly expanded just before World War I and all the way through to World War II and beyond, mostly because this new form of combustion allowed for significantly easier engine maintenance. Other benefits included better fuel efficiency across the board, and the kind of power and torque necessary for industrial applications and military endeavors.
Almost all of the heavy equipment used by the United States military was engineered to take advantage of the Diesel engine. Actually, most militaries all over the world were built to use diesel for that matter. They’re now known colloquially throughout the world as the diesel engine (lower case D) and for good reason.
It was a stable platform, fuel was cheap and easy to manufacture (including overseas), and the combustion that it provided made it perfect for military/industrial applications.
Today’s diesel engines have been transformed
Today’s diesel engines are significantly different than the ones that existed when the first few pages of diesel engine history were still being written. Although the science and the overall “theme” of these engines remains the same, great advancements have been made.
Diesel engines have proven time and time again to be significantly more fuel-efficient than traditional gasoline-based engines. Although they are easier to maintain, they are a bit of a headache and hassle in colder climates. They are especially difficult when the temperature begins to drop below freezing.
The commercial industry still takes advantage of diesel engines, and the shipping industry in particular relies on this inexpensive and easy to maintain combustion system. They use the diesel system transport billions and billions of tons of cargo every single year.
The future of the diesel cycle engine
The obvious future for diesel engines is a move back to its “roots”.
Biofuel is now produced by that same peanut oil that the original engines were made to run off of. We’re also now using reclaimed and re-purposed cooking oil, corn oil, and a host of other biofuel sources. Biofuel is gaining significant traction globally. Most of the diesel automobile engines from the 70’s and 80’s are capable of running on biofuel with no modification.
Many even consider it to be part of the answer to eliminating our dependency on fossil fuels.
It’s going to be exciting to see how the development of the diesel morphs and transforms over the next hundred years or so!