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Jul
23

Is Diesel the Solution?

Many people, including me, have espoused the idea that wider use of diesel-fueled vehicles could put a major dent in fuel consumption in the US.  One can look at virtually all other countries in the world and recognize that this is patently obvious.  It’s easy to find diesel vehicles in the EU, for example, that cover almost 50 miles on a single gallon of the stuff.  Try that with a gasoline-electric hybrid.  So why aren’t we all driving cars with diesel engines?

With federally mandated low-sulfer diesel now available everywhere in the US and urea injection technology widely implemented by auto makers, clean diesel fuel is available to meet all our pumping desires.  Add that to the fact that even at the price premium that diesel currently gets over gasoline, diesel is the way to go – using current fuel costs and average fuel economy for gasoline-fueled vehicles and diesel-fueled ones, diesel cars still cost 23% less per mile to operate (see the EIA Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Update for some great information on fuel prices).  Complete and utter no-brainer, right?  Bring on the diesels, our new best friends.

Disappointingly, it turns out that it’s not that easy.  Csaba Csere, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine wrote a terrific editorial that discusses the diesel fuel dilemma in the US.  In the article, Csere states:

Al Mannato, a fuel-issues manager at API [American Petroleum Institute], explains that oil refineries tend to fall into two categories: catalytic cracking and hydrocracking. Most U.S. refineries are set up for catalytic cracking, which turns each barrel of crude oil into about 50-percent gasoline, 15-percent diesel, and the remainder into jet fuel, home heating oil, heavy fuel oil, liquefied petroleum gas, asphalt, and various other products. In Europe and most of the rest of the world, refineries use a hydrocracking process, which produces more like 25-percent gasoline and 25-percent diesel from that barrel of oil. So the rest of the world is already maximizing diesel production. In fact, despite using a refining strategy that minimizes the production of gasoline, Europe still ends up with too much of the stuff, so it exports it to America—about one of every eight gallons of gasoline that we consume.”

Crap.  So, we have this monstrous, difficult to change refining infrastructure that virtually guarantees that the supply of diesel fuel is constrained.  Csere continues . . .

Meanwhile, Americans are already using most of the diesel fuel that our refineries produce, so if sales of diesel cars take off, keeping the diesel flowing here will put further demands on tight worldwide diesel supplies and probably cause the price to rise even more. Our oil industry could, of course, start converting its refineries from catalytic to hydrocracking and start producing more diesel and less gasoline.

Doing so—and here’s the Catch-22—would reduce the output of gasoline and likely increase its price. Moreover, such a switch, Mannato explains, amounts to a major refinery change that would take 5 to 10 years to accomplish. . .

Hmmm . . . limited supply and increasing demand.  Even my basic grasp of economics leads me to see that this is a problem.  I guess that diesel-powered cars are not the panacea that I thought they were or, at least, it’s a more complicated situation than I had considered.

Is there a way to change the oil refining situation in the country faster?  Perhaps there is a solution in there.  The EU countries strategically hiked gas taxes many years ago to drive car buyers to diesel vehicles and aligned demand with production.  Having not adopted such a strategy in the US (or any strategy, as far as I can tell), we find ourselves digging out of what could be (will likely be?) an energy nightmare.  It’s definitely time for some good ol’ reactive American ingenuity.

My friend Lorne proposes micro-refineries that could adapt quickly and meet regional needs.  Is this the way to go?  That is, until we find a way to bag fossil fuels altogether.

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 July 23rd, 2008  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments

4 Responses to Is Diesel the Solution?

  1. Will,

    A couple of other points:

    Diesels appear to be more efficient than they actually are. The energy content of a gallon of diesel fuel is about 11% greater than gasoline, this makes a diesel “appear” to be a more efficient user of oil, than it really is. You can not get as many gallons of diesel fuel out of a barrel of oil as you can gasoline. Granted, the diesel engine is more efficient than a gasoline motor, but the extra energy content of diesel fools us into thinking it’s better than it actually is.

    Second, despite low sulfar fuel (which reduces the acid rain problem), you still have the soot problem. The new diesels appear to be cleaner because they create a finer soot, so it’s less visible, but many scientists are concerned that finer soot represents an even greater health problem than the old fashioned soot.

    Probably the most meaningful advantage of diesel engines to me is their potential for biodiesel conversion, which means our cars are getting their energy from a multiplicity of prime sources (petroleum, or biomass). One could argue that plug in hybrids do the same thing, in that some of their energy can come form other sources depending on the electric utilities source (nuclear, geothermal, wind, etc…).

  2. Will,

    A couple of other points:

    Diesels appear to be more efficient than they actually are. The energy content of a gallon of diesel fuel is about 11% greater than gasoline, this makes a diesel “appear” to be a more efficient user of oil, than it really is. You can not get as many gallons of diesel fuel out of a barrel of oil as you can gasoline. Granted, the diesel engine is more efficient than a gasoline motor, but the extra energy content of diesel fools us into thinking it’s better than it actually is.

    Second, despite low sulfar fuel (which reduces the acid rain problem), you still have the soot problem. The new diesels appear to be cleaner because they create a finer soot, so it’s less visible, but many scientists are concerned that finer soot represents an even greater health problem than the old fashioned soot.

    Probably the most meaningful advantage of diesel engines to me is their potential for biodiesel conversion, which means our cars are getting their energy from a multiplicity of prime sources (petroleum, or biomass). One could argue that plug in hybrids do the same thing, in that some of their energy can come form other sources depending on the electric utilities source (nuclear, geothermal, wind, etc…).

  3. Interesting point about the refineries. I guess in Europe, the continued (and slow) popularity of diesel throughout the early 90’s meant that there was still a demand for this fuel type. As the governments introduced more tax, more people switched over to get better mileage and that meant that the refineries were slowly able to switch over some of the production to diesel and hydrocracking really makes the most out of a barrel. Here the story really isn’t so pretty. Consumer demand for higher mileage cars (and therefore a more efficient oil derivative) just hasn’t been there because gasoline has been so ridiculously cheap.

    California and diesel production are stumbling blocks for diesel cars. A couple of manufacturers (VW and MB) now have 50 state legal TDIs on the market (using urea to allow them to be sold in CA), but the above problems described by Will here really won’t allow it to take off. Such a shame as it really has many advantages. So maybe we’re just headed down the hybrid and plugin path? Maybe hydrogen fuel cells? Maybe if we can finally crack Nuclear Fusion (that’s Fusion, not Fission: http://science.howstuffworks.com/fusion-reactor.htm/printable), then we can get to the holy grail of energy production. Of course that may mean not having a government that has their fingers and shares in oil (oops – did I say that out loud – there goes the green card!). Diesel isn’t the end solution; just a bridging alternative.

    Whatever happens, as long as we continue to make and run things like cars, we’ll always be polluting and using energy. But switching to alternative and renewable sources of energy will really help our climate and national security.

    Acting now is a very sensible thing; go rent Mad Max for a sensational view about what the world might be when oil runs out and nobody has done anything to find an alternative. With the right leadership we will find a solution. Just remember the race for the atomic bomb and the space race. Get the biggest brains in the world together, get the government to firmly back them, pay them well and you’ll get there. Getting government to act means instilling fear in them. Kudos to Al Gore et al for putting part of the message across.

  4. Interesting point about the refineries. I guess in Europe, the continued (and slow) popularity of diesel throughout the early 90’s meant that there was still a demand for this fuel type. As the governments introduced more tax, more people switched over to get better mileage and that meant that the refineries were slowly able to switch over some of the production to diesel and hydrocracking really makes the most out of a barrel. Here the story really isn’t so pretty. Consumer demand for higher mileage cars (and therefore a more efficient oil derivative) just hasn’t been there because gasoline has been so ridiculously cheap.

    California and diesel production are stumbling blocks for diesel cars. A couple of manufacturers (VW and MB) now have 50 state legal TDIs on the market (using urea to allow them to be sold in CA), but the above problems described by Will here really won’t allow it to take off. Such a shame as it really has many advantages. So maybe we’re just headed down the hybrid and plugin path? Maybe hydrogen fuel cells? Maybe if we can finally crack Nuclear Fusion (that’s Fusion, not Fission: http://science.howstuffworks.com/fusion-reactor.htm/printable), then we can get to the holy grail of energy production. Of course that may mean not having a government that has their fingers and shares in oil (oops – did I say that out loud – there goes the green card!). Diesel isn’t the end solution; just a bridging alternative.

    Whatever happens, as long as we continue to make and run things like cars, we’ll always be polluting and using energy. But switching to alternative and renewable sources of energy will really help our climate and national security.

    Acting now is a very sensible thing; go rent Mad Max for a sensational view about what the world might be when oil runs out and nobody has done anything to find an alternative. With the right leadership we will find a solution. Just remember the race for the atomic bomb and the space race. Get the biggest brains in the world together, get the government to firmly back them, pay them well and you’ll get there. Getting government to act means instilling fear in them. Kudos to Al Gore et al for putting part of the message across.

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