With all the on-going electrification of vehicles and governments globally moving away from diesel, we take a look at the technologies aiming to maintain a place in our world for internal combustion. Is this the end?
The steam engine. It pioneered mechanical motion, using steam pressure to push a piston in a cylinder that turned a crank. Motion through gas. Petrol then diesel followed, making the same principle idea safer for everyday use, despite using highly flammable liquids. And then there’s the electric motor, conceived before any of the others. Today, we take it for granted that petrol and diesel power our world. They power our cars and lorries. They’ve been instrumental in pushing human endeavours, population, farming and exploration. However, it has come at a heavy price: we’re quite literally poisoning the planet. The simple and inescapable fact is when fuel burns, it produces gas, no matter how ‘clean’. And in the extreme quantities that we use around the world, these gases are causing early deaths, global warming and a host of other side effects that Karl Benz and Rudolph Diesel likely never considered, yet would be horrified to realise.
While diesel today is popular for its miles per gallon efficiency, it has fallen from favour thanks to exhaust gases and not just those we measure for tax. NOx and many more particulates are spewed from exhausts every single time combustion takes place and keep in mind most engines idle at just under 1,000rpm. That’s 1,000 revolutions per 60 seconds and that’s a lot of combustion. Even if we consider an “economical” petrol or diesel vehicle which emits 100g/km CO2, that’s like throwing a slab of chocolate out the window every kilometre travelled. And that’s just CO2. Clearly, something must be done.
Is the answer electric? Yes and no. As many critics of electric mobility are keen to point out, the cars, although emission free at the exhaust pipe, are not necessarily powered by emission free electricity. In the UK, this is largely the case as we still rely on coal and gas power. Nuclear is better in countries like France, but it has a waste problem, to put it lightly. Renewable energy is the obvious solution, but it’s a relatively fickle thing to produce consistently. And then there’s the batteries. The main reason why steam, petrol and diesel ever stood a chance over electric power was because we humans are yet to really master the art of storing energy – enough to move a large automobile filled with people, that is. Strides are being taken in this field and today development of graphene-based battery terminals, solid-state, metal-air and a host of other chemistries and technologies aim to improve upon lithium-ion cells that are commonplace today.
Mazda has always been a relatively small innovative company that likes to think differently. Consequently, the company persisted with the spirited rotary (Wankel) engine in cars as recently as 2004, long after others had passed them by deeming them too complicated or difficult to make work properly. And today, while companies like Volvo have all but given up trying to improve petrol engine efficiency directly without some form of hybridisation, Mazda believes that well-to-wheel emissions are more important. The Japanese company believes petrol engine emissions can be on a par with electric cars powered by coal and gas produced electricity, well-to-wheel. A 10% efficiency improvement, they calculated, is enough to make the difference. The result is the new Skyactiv-X petrol engines.
Firstly, it’s a 2.0-litre petrol in-line four cylinder. Nope, not a downsized turbo engine like others are producing at the moment and no, it’s not a hybrid either. Instead of a turbo, Mazda opted for a clutched supercharger that forces air into the cylinder in a more controlled, linear fashion. There’s also mild-hybrid technology taking advantage of brake energy regeneration, but not a full hybrid setup.
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