Argonne Lab's Green-Car Event: VW and Audi Diesels Clean Up

October 5, 2010

Argonne Laboratory's Green Car Event

"A portfolio of alternative fuel choices" says Argonne National Laboratory's   researcher Forrest Jehlik, is what America needs.  With these options, he contends, our nation can wean itself from its ever-increasing use of foreign fuel. He argues that diesel power trains "seamlessly" reduce fuel consumption.  And he adds, "unlike most hybrids, they're a kick to drive."

With two back-to-back wins as Green Car Journal's green cars of the year, VW (Jetta TDI, 2009) and Audi (A3 TDI, 2010) turbocharged direct-injection diesels were the focus of Argonne's campus driving tour last August.  Goals: let automotive journalists experience advances in compression-ignition power trains, then see what the Lab's researchers are doing to further reduce diesel-powered vehicle environmental impact and witness their alternative fuel studies.

Don Hillebrand directs Argonne's a Manhattan Project-style investigation.  He says 10% of the lab's work involves transportation related studies.  Lab scientists, for instance, use a Superman-like X-ray to examine engine combustion chambers in action.  This permits them to gauge how injection/combustion strategies affect emissions, power and economy.  This hard science has useful applications: carmakers, oil companies and the U.S. Air Force can lower harmful emissions through advanced engine-control technologies.

While Hillebrand doesn't advocate one green-car/fuel approach (they also research hybrid and electric vehicles), he invited journalists to learn how Argonne's scientists move power trains forward.  From the lab's test beds, he's discovered "exciting" diesel advances that offer "phenomenal" potential.  The U.S., he contends, could cut fossil fuel use by 30% if more motorists went diesel.  Unlike other alternative propulsion systems, diesel's infrastructure is already in place.

Another Lab scientist, Dr. Steve Ciatti, says the "astounding" change during the past 10 years is an amazing reduction in diesel particulate matter (PM, down 98%) and a significant cut in nitrogen oxides (NOx, down 99%).  This means diesels are now nearly zero-emission power trains.  Nonetheless, clean-diesel vehicles retain their legendary efficiency.

Ciatti says Argonne can do the theoretical science research "down to the 10-nano meter level" via an electron microscope.  In a sense, Argonne's researchers can see the smallest parts in order to understand the big picture.  From lowering emissions to evaluating methods for increasing engine longevity, Ciatti says their work has useful applications.

Audi's Bradley Stertz told the carmaker's story.  He says it's difficult to talk to the public about today's diesels.  Therefore, Audi's advertising uses a compelling visual:  oil barrels rolling back into tankers.  He says, Audi views clean diesel as one part of fuel-use puzzle.  Stertz argues for inclusion of clean diesel as one component of federal government's clean-vehicle fleet program.  Currently, demand for Audi's upscale-yet-tidy A3 diesel exceeds Audi's modest expectations.  Rather than grabbing a predicted 10% of sales, more than 40% of A3 buyers go diesel.  Now there's an Audi TDI shortage.  Nonetheless, A3 sales during 2010 more than doubled, claims Stertz.

After driving the A3 TDI on the Lab's "test track," it's possible to proclaim diesel is no longer a dirty word.

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