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Energy & Sustainability

Weekly Trend: Energy Efficient Engines and the Revamping of the Auto Industry

Eerily quiet electric hybrids are no longer the only vehicles on the road that boast energy efficiency. As we become more concerned with cleaner energy, environmental impacts and the depletion of our natural resources, automotive companies and government agencies alike are focusing on reinventing the auto industry in the United States.

There is great potential to improve fuel efficiency in vehicles. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that only 14% – 30% of energy from fuel is used to accelerate cars. The rest of the energy powers accessories or is lost due to inefficient mechanisms, thus providing innovators, government officials and industry leaders with ample opportunity to make improvements.

The Energy Department and automotive powerhouses such as GM are interested in refurbishing the internal combustion engine. Used by over 230 million passenger vehicles in the United States, the internal combustion engine (ICE) is currently the most common way to power a vehicle. Because the internal combustion engine is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, GM has dedicated significant manpower to making these engines more desirable.

Co-funded by the Energy Department, GM has created the Intake Valve Lift Control with the intent to improve fuel economy and lower emissions of the internal combustion engine. Internal combustion engines operate by combining fuel and air in a combustion chamber, which when ignited causes a small explosion that activates a piston, turns a crankshaft and ends with the spinning of the vehicle’s wheels. In traditional ICEs, the combining of fuel and air is the same regardless of the amount of energy needed. This means that fuel is wasted when driving slowly in stop-and-go traffic because the engine is still creating the necessary combination of fuel and air for navigating at faster speeds or with heavier loads. GM rectified this problem by creating a valve that differentiates how much fuel it releases into the chamber based on need. Rather than working as a traditional ICE, engines with the Intake Valve Lift Control engage in two different levels of “lift,” thus supplying the required amount of fuel and air to combine in the chamber. This change improves fuel economy and could drastically reduce oil consumption in America as more and more passenger vehicles feature this type of engine.

Commercial vehicles are getting a makeover as well. Because trucks are notoriously known as gas-guzzlers and big contributors to harmful emissions, automotive companies are focusing on revamping their engines and creating an appealing alternative to the traditional eight-cylinder gasoline engine. In addition to having poor fuel economies these engines are both bulky and loud. Cummins recently created a four-cylinder diesel engine that boasts the quiet and clean qualities of a gasoline engine while being 30 percent more efficient. With funding from the Energy Department and a partnership with Nissan, Cummins and its new diesel engine have the potential to increase fuel-economy and reduce America’s greenhouse gas footprint.  Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Nissan, Cummins and the Energy Department, clean diesel technology is becoming a more viable option for lightweight trucks and potentially heavier commercial vehicles as well.

So what is next for the automotive industry? The U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office is constantly teaming up with industry leaders in order to develop energy efficient and environmentally friendly ways to reduce petroleum consumption. Innovative thinkers have a unique opportunity to transform the auto industry by creating technologies that relate to engine efficiency. These new technologies could range from different materials for automotive application to improved mechanisms, such as the aforementioned Intake Valve Lift Control.

Research to develop more efficient engines not only stems from government agencies and industry executives but also from college campuses across the country. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has an entire research center devoted to the development and improvement of engines and Duke University boasts an engineering department featuring professors who avidly research “alternative propulsion methods for ground transportation.” While such institutions can produce meaningful and innovative solutions to problems relating to energy efficiency and environmental impact, the real challenge revolves around bringing these ideas to fruition through mass production. Research dollars may give researchers and academics the head start they need to create new ideas but the ultimate goal of bringing mechanisms and technologies to mass production is another obstacle to overcome.

The automotive industry is undoubtedly subject to disruption in the coming years as entrepreneurs as well as big, well-established companies look to make vehicles more efficient, in any and every way possible. Because everyone can agree that saving fuel, money and the environment are all positive aspirations, the automotive industry is bound to continue to change and grow as we strive to make significant changes to vehicles and the way they function.

Carolyn Peyser

Carolyn is a senior at Tufts University majoring in Sociology and minoring in Communications and Media Studies.