Mike the Mad Biologist

A New and Improved Automobile Engine?

A while ago, I stumbled across this amazing article about a car mechanic, who never even graduated high school, and who has developed a diesel engine that is cleaner (biodiesel based), more fuel efficient, and more powerful than the standard engine produced by car companies (italics mine):

This is the sort of work that’s making Goodwin famous in the world of underground car modders. He is a virtuoso of fuel economy. He takes the hugest American cars on the road and rejiggers them to get up to quadruple their normal mileage and burn low-emission renewable fuels grown on U.S. soil–all while doubling their horsepower. The result thrills eco-evangelists and red-meat Americans alike: a vehicle that’s simultaneously green and mean. And word’s getting out. In the corner of his office sits Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1987 Jeep Wagoneer, which Goodwin is converting to biodiesel; soon, Neil Young will be shipping him a 1960 Lincoln Continental to transform into a biodiesel–electric hybrid.

His target for Young’s car? One hundred miles per gallon.

This is more than a mere American Chopper–style makeover. Goodwin’s experiments point to a radically cleaner and cheaper future for the American car. The numbers are simple: With a $5,000 bolt-on kit he co-engineered–the poor man’s version of a Goodwin conversion–he can immediately transform any diesel vehicle to burn 50% less fuel and produce 80% fewer emissions. On a full-size gas-guzzler, he figures the kit earns its money back in about a year–or, on a regular car, two–while hitting an emissions target from the outset that’s more stringent than any regulation we’re likely to see in our lifetime. “Johnathan’s in a league of his own,” says Martin Tobias, CEO of Imperium Renewables, the nation’s largest producer of biodiesel. “Nobody out there is doing experiments like he is.”

Nobody–particularly not Detroit. Indeed, Goodwin is doing precisely what the big American automakers have always insisted is impossible. They have long argued that fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel cars are a hard sell because they’re too cramped and meek for our market. They’ve lobbied aggressively against raising fuel-efficiency and emissions standards, insisting that either would doom the domestic industry. Yet the truth is that Detroit is now getting squeezed from all sides. This fall, labor unrest is brewing, and after decades of inertia on fuel-economy standards, Congress is jockeying to boost the target for cars to 35 mpg, a 10 mpg jump (which is either ridiculously large or ridiculously small, depending on whom you ask). More than a dozen states are enacting laws requiring steep reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Meanwhile, gas prices have hovered around $3 per gallon for more than a year. And European and Japanese carmakers are flooding the market with diesel and hybrid machines that get up to 40% better mileage than the best American cars; some, such as Mercedes’s new BlueTec diesel sedans, deliver that kind of efficiency and more horsepower.

What’s bothered me about the debate surrounding issues like global warming is the abject pessimism that stems from the conservative side of the debate (the Republicant side…). Rather than viewing the need to improve gas mileage or pollution standards as a way to make a better product, the typical conservative response has been to piss and moan about how it can’t be done. This mechanic has shown that it can be done. Unfortunately, Detroit’s track record is such that the only way they’ll adopt this technology–which makes a more environmentally-friendly and powerful car–is if the federal government forces them to do so.

Of course, since this won’t come from the Republicant side, we have to count on the Democrats–and when is the last time the Democrats have stood up for anything, other than Social Security, in the last few years…

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    November 4, 2007

    I hate to say this but sounds too good to be true. I am sure he can get better mileage, probably a lot! But the article sounds like a scam article and it probably shouldn’t. Instant 50% increase on ANY vehicle is BS and sounds like the 100MPG carburetor of the past. There is nothing special about biodiesel as a fuel. Diesel electric hybrids are really one of the best ways to go, but a Lincoln getting 100 MPG (unless it is going 10 MPH or something), is a little beyond the pale, unless there are a few tons of batteries in it, in which case the gas efficiency might be high, but the overall won’t be. All the stuff that is talked about is actually the right way to go, but the efficiencies are so out of whack that unfortunately the oversell, as well as the common racketeering swipe at Detroit make everything smell. The American car companies and their unions are shortsighted fools about gas mileage standards, but if they thought they could easily get a 50% increase in mileage it would be happening instantly especially on long travel trucks. Now I want him to bolt on his $5K kit to a diesel Volkswagon already getting 60 mpg and show me the 90 MPG he will be getting. (It does say – ANY diesel, right?, or is he picking out ones that are old and dieing and only managing 10 to 15 MPG? …)

    Just as an example – if you take a Prius and put a top bike rack and bicycle on it, the gas mileage goes down by a quarter or more on the highway. That is pure aerodynamics. A Lincoln is a lot bigger, heavier, and less aerodynamic than a Prius.

    Again I am not saying he can’t get a lot (a LOT) of efficiency gains – they are there to be had, and people like Amory Lovins have been talking about them for decades, but don’t oversell.

  2. #2 stewart
    November 4, 2007

    Before we get carried away, how close is this to the theoretical maximum efficiency? If these values exceed the thermodynamic maximum, someone’s getting overexcited.

  3. #3 DV82XL
    November 4, 2007

    Another thing with many of these ‘revolutionary’ engine designs is that they cannot be mass produced. The current design has been fine-tuned in this regard over many decades. Bringing a new type in is not a trivial task – c.f.: Wankel rotary engine.

  4. #4 Tophe
    November 4, 2007
  5. #5 Dunc
    November 4, 2007

    burn 50% less fuel and produce 80% fewer emissions

    So how does that work then? Where’s the rest of the fuel going, if not out the tailpipe as emissions?

  6. #6 bigTom
    November 4, 2007

    I’m with Mark, anything with specs that are (way) too good to be true is likely some sort of scam. It is possible this effort is being secretly funded by the auto-industry as an effort to discredit critics.

    dunc: under conventional definition of emmisions, H2O and CO2 aren’t counted. The things that are normally called pollutants are products of an imperfect combustion process.

  7. #7 paul
    November 5, 2007

    At current prices, saving $5K a year means saving 1600 gallons of gas a year. That would mean the full-sized car in the hypothetical is currently burning 3200 gallons a year. At a miserable 10 mpg that would be a daily commute of about 100 miles. And if the average car owner drives anywhere near 100mi/day, we’re pretty much up the creek regardless of how good the mileage gets.

    By citing carmakers in other countries who aren’t idiots, the article seems to be undercutting its own thesis: the work is being done, it’s just not being done by US manufacturers. (Which should be no news as long as the US government exempts so many vehicles from fuel-efficiency standards and gives tax subsidies for their purchase.)

  8. #8 mxracer652
    November 5, 2007

    This makes no sense, you can only run an internal combustion piston engine fuel lean to a point before engine failure occurs. Organic chemistry is picky like that.

    When you run an IC engine fuel lean (diesels already are, upwards of 20:1 afr) they get particularly bad with nitric oxides. It’s just simple chemistry.

    All of the fuel economy gains we make now are focused on reduction of friction to lower fuel consumption, not engine modifications per se. If you increase your production tolerances, you can get tighter on your bearing specs, run thinner oil & reduce friction. Do that in the engine, tranny & drive line, and you can make some real gains.

    Other than that, this entire thing smells like snake oil.

  9. #9 Schwa
    November 6, 2007

    Hey, Paul, I’m not getting the same numbers you are.

    Assuming gas costs 3$/gallon, 5000$ = ~1667 gallons of gas. The dude in the article claims that a ‘regular car’ makes back the money in two years; over two years (365*2 days), that amounts to ~2.2 gallons of gas per day. Assuming 25 miles per gallon, we have ~57 miles round trip per day, or a 29 mile commute – pretty long, but not impossible. These are, of course, assuming that the guy’s numbers are correct.

    At 100% efficiency, it takes more than 7 gallons of gas to get an H2 from stopped to 60 mph, which does not bode well for the claim of 60 miles per gallon. Wikipedia claims 35,000 kilojoules per liter of gas burned, or roughly 140,000 kJ/gallon. Assuming no friction, getting a 2903 kilogram H2 from stopped to 60 miles per hour (27 m/s) takes 10^6 joules. Incidentally, he says his engines can do that in 5 seconds, for 200 kilowatts of power, which is about 90% of what the H2 claims without modifications.

    http://www.schoolforchampions.com/science/friction_coefficient_greased.htm

    This website claims that the coefficient of kinetic friction for greased steel on steel can go as low as 0.03. 2903*9.8 is a normal force of 28449.4 newtons, resulting in a friction force of about 853 N. To do 140000 joules of work, that force has to act over 164 meters, meaning that he should be getting about 11 miles per gallon. This is clearly worse than what SUVs actually get, so I guess I’ve got a screwy assumption in my back of the undergrad napkin math here, but it does convince me that there’s probably no way for a Hummer to get more than 30 or 40 miles per gallon.

    I guess if the Hummer he has actually does weigh half a ton less than the H2 specs, the mpg I calculated above goes up to about 14, but still.

    Anyway, there are probably some mistaken assumptions here; take it with a grain of salt.

  10. #10 Schwa
    November 6, 2007

    Durrrr, I done made a math error. Ignore everything I said after “100% efficiency” – halfway through I started reading 140,000 kilojoules as 140,000 joules. I have totally failed to show that it costs 20$ to take an H2 on the highway.

  11. #11 Schwa
    November 6, 2007

    Does anyone know how much energy cars usually lose to sound, friction, etc.? Now I’m curious. Just getting cars up to speed doesn’t take nearly as much energy as I thought it did.

  12. #12 Fnord Prefect
    November 6, 2007

    7 gallons of gas just to accelerate to 60 mph didn’t set off any warning bells?

  13. #13 Schwa
    November 6, 2007

    There’s a reason I revisited the math. :P

  14. #14 mxracer652
    November 6, 2007

    The engine is on the order of 30% efficient, that is total.

    Typical drivetrain efficiencies are 75-85%, depending on the vehicle, automatic vs manual, 4wd, etc.

    Air drag…depends, I did solve this once, IIRC it took about 30HP/22kW for a passenger sedan drive down a flat highway at 60mph, no headwind, etc.

  15. #15 Anthony
    November 6, 2007

    I just came across this on accident, but I have to put in a word here. mxracer652 was right on the money with his post. It is becoming increasingly necessary to be objective about these kinds of discoveries lately. As environmentally-friendly as you’re going to hear about things like this, ask yourself what the difference is between biodiesel and conventional diesel, and why we are still using hydrocarbon fuels.
    In reality there is very little to no difference between conventional diesel and biodiesel except that biodiesel as a fuel is going to cost you more in the long run because it is terrible for the injectors, the orifices of which are much smaller than gasoline injectors. Keep in mind each of these will cost upwards of $900 to replace with today’s technology, though a little bit shorter in smaller cars.
    Also, imagine for a moment that carbon dioxide is suddenly found to be inconsequential to the environment. Would you suspect that in this case diesel/biodiesel-powered vehicles will be environmentally favorable to gasoline vehicles? Not a chance. All things equal, diesels are generally pigs for releasing Oxides of Nitrogen (source for low-ph precipitation and photochemical smog) into the atmosphere because the diesel combustion cycle depends on a constant state of high-heat, lean detonation (nitrogen and oxygen combine to form NOx at around 2500 F if I remember correctly). Biodiesel is no exception.
    You can also obtain this fuel economy and performance selectively because the line between these two is just a matter of how much fuel you’re burning in a cycle.
    Diesel engines are fun to play with, but far from an ideal power source for most anything outside of industrial needs.
    Car manufacturers would build it if it were viable. Their business is in selling new parts, not bringing business to fuel suppliers.

  16. #16 Mike
    August 16, 2008

    Does anyone know if van diesel engines are adversley effected by salt water laden air? ( as on a small pacific Island location )

  17. #17 Matt Hussein Platte
    August 17, 2008

    [From the Beating a Dead Horse Department]

    …people like Amory Lovins have been talking about them for decades…

    And that’s Lovins’ prime function: to protect the status quo (Detroit) by incessant talking, while producing exactly nothing in the real world.

  18. #18 mirc
    March 24, 2009

    thanks

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