A recent issue of the Economist newspaper ran a feature article called “The death of the Internal Combustion Engine”. And let’s be frank – since news of the German diesel scandal (which really is a worldwide diesel scandal) broke, there is ever more momentum towards a world full of Electric Vehicles. Or so it would seem.
Multiple cities have already declared to ban diesel altogether at some point in the not too distant future. France has announced a ban from 2040 onwards and other countries explore the option of following suit. Even in the US, the country that was taken out of the Paris accords by President Trump, there is a coalition of city and local politicians that are willing and able to press ahead with abolishing the combustion of hydrocarbons.
Germany just had its meeting of auto-industry managers and officials called the Diesel summit and the world watched in disgust how auto companies got off lightly for cheating everyone.
At the same time, not a day goes by with triumphant news on how much cheaper solar and wind are compared to anything else and some venerable institutions already see a Demand Peak for oil in the near future.
Volvo has announced that they will go all electric by 2019 and even Ford has announced that their monster F-150 pickup and the iconic Mustang will be available in a hybrid version.
And to top it all, Elon Musks wonder car, the model 3, was released to feast on the markets of those hydrocarbon dinosaurs.
Is the Internal Combustion Engine really doomed then?
Most of the journalists and commentators are not very specific on what they mean with the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) so we must assume that they target all fuels that are combustible in principle. This would include all forms of diesel and gasoline as well as Autogas and Natural Gas as fuels plus exotics such as DME, Methanol, and hydrogen if combusted instead of used in a fuel cell.
A pretty broad brush by any standard and I have the feeling that many of those same officials have no idea that they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
There is a fundamental difference between liquid fuels engines and gaseous fuels engines (both of them being ICE’s) from an environmental point of view. Gases produce less CO2 as their carbon chains are shorter but that is not the punch line. The real reason for the fundamental difference is the very nature of their combustion process.
Liquid fuels such as diesel and gasoline have to be mixed with air in order to burn efficiently. Liquids, if left in a jar and ignited just burn on the surface and it’s not even the liquid that burns. The heat of the flame vaporizes and part of the fuel then mixes with air through convection making it a combustible mixture.
In the combustion chamber of an engine, the fuel needs to burn instantly – in a flash – and not like a wooden log on the surface. As liquids burn only on the surface, the liquid must be converted in a mist that is mixed with air and then sucked into the combustion chamber where it burns.
In the combustion chamber and after having been mixed with air, the fuel is still a liquid and not a gas. Which means that the fine mist which the fuel now is contains countless tiny droplets of fuel in the ambient air. That’s what a mist really is – droplets in the air. This increases surface which guarantees a much more instantaneous burn.
It’s a finely tuned process by today that runs very efficiently but it has a nasty side effect.
Those same droplets – when they combust – still burn from the surface layer by layer until the residue forms a kernel. This incinerated kernel constitutes particulate matter which then moves through the exhaust treatment system. The combustion process happens in a fraction of a second but its nature is unaltered.
Gas is very different here as there are no droplets. Ambient air is a gas, Natural Gas is a gas so those two substances just intermix as their aggregate state is the same. It’s a bit like mixing water with orange-syrup. Both are liquids so they form a homogenous liquid pretty rapidly. No droplet and hence no kernel.
What I want to say is that the differences between gas fuelled engines and liquid fuelled engines are almost as big as between electric vehicles and internal combustion engine vehicles. Liquid fuel engines and gaseous fuel engines are very different beasts – at least from an environmental point of view.
Diesel and gasoline engines are by their very nature not only much dirtier than Natural gas engines, they also produce some of the most potent toxins we find in our ambient air today.
But let’s come back to the real world of everyday drivers. The diesel debate creates the impression that the whole transportation world consist of small personal vehicles only. However, most of the vehicle emissions today are produced by heavy vehicles such as trucks, buses, construction machines, waterborne vehicles and airborne vehicles as well as other high horsepower applications.
Just imagine one of the above with a battery!
Besides, Electric Vehicles still command a heft price premium and governments will not extend their lavish support once numbers swell as this will raid public coffers and fuel taxes constitute an important element in any states revenues. Governments will have to drop support and start to meaningfully tax EV’s in time. This means that the CAPEX premium EV buyers have to pay as compared to an ICE vehicle will take even longer than the assumed 8 years to amortize.
EV’s start to look at the mass market as opposed to some very tech heavy, well heeled early adopters and show offs. And the masses care more about economics than cool factor. On this count, the EV still performs very badly. Pull subsidies out and adoption numbers drop abysmally. Norway, the country with the highest adoption rates, also pays the highest bribes to EV enthusiasts.
China is going for massive gasification of their own transport system. They push the envelope on electrification as well but not for the big vehicles. No other country on earth puts that many gas vehicles in service. And China knows why it does so. Because gas is clean and because gas works just fine. No unsolved mysteries for a performance that’s pretty much equal to diesel.
India also has a huge gasification program in place. The two biggest population centers on earth go for Natural Gas and even if the US gasification drive has somewhat slowed with cheaper liquid fuels, a lot of infrastructures have been built that will not be undone just because competing fuels are a bit cheaper now.
However, let’s push this further – China not only goes for gasification of its domestic vehicle fleet. It also pushes the envelope on methane hydrates and really wants to make Shale Gas and Coal bad Methane work. They go for domestic sources of fuel in the long run instead of the imported LNG or oil. This shows us how serious they are. Their real problem is smog and as Natural Gas engines don’t cause smog, they are just fine with them.
The EV market is going to grow – massively so. But from a very low base and it’s going to stick in the corner of the small vehicle for a long while. Anything that’s bigger and that needs to go longer distances will have to stick with the internal combustion engine and the cleanest of all of them is the Natural gas engine.
Natural Gas as a fuel can be rolled out quickly and without much of a change of behavior required from owners and drivers – and fleet managers. That’s important as one does not want to immobilize trucks and buses multiple times a day in order to charge the batteries. One fill per day and the fill shall not take more than 5 minutes. That’s what they are used to form diesel and that what they want from anything else. EV’s cannot deliver that.
Diesel vehicles are produced in huge quantities so economies of scale kick in. Those same economies of scale will also hit the Natural Gas vehicle world once they go big. And as the Natural Gas engine is inherently simpler than the diesel engine and exhaust gas after-treatment is not really a big deal anymore, they must become cheaper than diesel vehicles in the long run as well.
So, China and India are kicking the bucket – can we afford to sit on our hands doing nothing? Not quite.
Natural Gas as a fuel has no lobby (or a very weak one) as it’s still lumped together with the fossil fuels such as diesel. It gets the bad name of diesel without deserving it. The Natural Gas industry has so far not really looked at the vehicle fuels market as a way to sell meaningful amounts of their stuff. However, with the current oversupply situation, they must find new markets if they are to survive.
Not convinced? Then allow me to throw you another bone to chew on. Natural Gas engines can be emissions free. Yes, that’s right. If you use biogas or synthetic gas as a feedstock you are carbon neutral, there are no particulates to worry about and the small whiff of NOx can be canceled out by a simple three-way catalytic converter.
Then it’s as strong, long-distance-beating, cheap and capable as a diesel engine while being as clean as an EV. And we can start this now. Deal?