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Energy Blog: Twilight for ICE Vehicles?

Energy Blog: Twilight for ICE Vehicles?

As Europe passes zero-carbon rules for cars and trucks, EVs look set to dominate. But researchers believe internal combustion engines still have something left in the tank.
It would be easy to believe that in the competition between conventional, fossil-fueled vehicles and electric vehicles, EVs have triumphed already. Viewers of the Super Bowl, which is one of the most-watched events in the United States, saw three EV ads and only one for a gas-powered SUV. You can watch them all. (Last year was even more lopsided, with seven electric vehicle commercials.)

The headlines in February were less entertaining, but more to the point. The European Parliament, which is the legislative body for the European Union, approved two targets for carbon-dioxide reductions in vehicles. The parliament ratified a path toward zero carbon emissions for new passenger cars and light commercial vehicles in 2035, with an intermediate emissions target for 2030 of a 55 percent reduction for cars and a 50 percent reduction for vans. This path had been proposed by the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, in 2021. In addition, the European Commission released a new proposed standard that would lead to a 90 percent reduction of carbon emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, such as commercial trucks and construction equipment, by 2040 and a zero-emissions target for new city buses as soon as 2030. 

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While the effect of those initiatives—and others like them around the world, such as in California, Norway, and the United Kingdom—won’t be felt until the next decade, the amazing thing is that EVs are being adopted at a rapid rate today. Just a few years ago, EVs made up less than 1 percent of all vehicle sales in any auto market. Now, sales of battery electrics comprise 5.8 percent of sales in the United States, 22 percent in China, and an astonishing 33 percent in Sweden.

What’s more, companies that make heavy machinery are developing electric or fuel cell-powered versions of their excavators, wheel loaders, and haulers. It’s enough to make one wonder if the days of the internal combustion engine are over.

Not so fast, say engineers who are involved with R&D in the internal combustion engine.

While no one dismisses the great strides being made in batteries, electric power trains, and the charging infrastructure—nor do they ignore the very real challenge of transportation sector carbon emissions—ICEs have some key advantages. Engines, especially diesel engines, are very efficient. And tanks of fuel can provide longer range than the similar weight or volume of batteries. And electrifying certain applications might not be as quick a path to decarbonization as adapting engines to burn low- and zero-carbon fuel.

As we recently reported, a research project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is studying what needs to be done to adapt a diesel engine to burn hydrogen and other non-fossil fuels. The goal of that program would be to create an alternative fueling system for the diesel-electric locomotives that power American railroads. As three researchers involved in that program (Scott Curran of Oak Ridge, Tom Lavertu of Wabtec Corp., and Sibendu Som at Argonne National Laboratory) write in an upcoming article for Mechanical Engineering magazine, “The ability to adapt existing equipment is critically important, as the current generation of engines used in rail, marine shipping, and large off-road applications will likely be in use for 30 or more years. This means technologies that are suitable to retrofit the current generation of clean engines to use low-lifecycle carbon fuels could greatly accelerated the decarbonization of the transportation sector.”

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Another engineer involved in that project, Kelly Senecal of Convergent Science Inc., was the guest on an episode of ASME TechCast in April 2022. He has written extensively on the need for flexible solutions for transportation and the advantages of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which run mostly on battery power but  include an ICE that can provide range when long distances need to be traveled.

Last October at the ASME ICE Forward conference in Indianapolis, Julie Blumreiter, chief technology officer and co-founder of ClearFlame Engine Technologies, gave a talk outlining the success her company has had in developing a diesel engine that can run on virtually any fuel. In an article for an upcoming issue of Mechanical Engineering, Blumreiter describes the results of her research. “We’ve retrofitted four diesel trucks (plus one genset) to operate on alcohol fuel and are driving them through demanding road tests, including regularly pulling 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight,” she writes. “The vehicles have a range of over 1,000 miles, and for liquid fuels like alcohols, installing refueling infrastructure along key fleet routes is very simple. Any of the quarter million diesel mechanics in the country can work on these vehicles.”

While EVs are making inroads faster than anyone might have imagined, engineers are still at work on the internal combustion engine and finding ways to make them suitable for our carbon-conscious century.

Jeffrey Winters is editor in chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine.

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