Department of Energy

54.5 MPG and Beyond: Speeding Up Development of Advanced Combustion Engines

December 10, 2012

You are here

Argonne engineer Steve Ciatti works on an engine in Argonne's Engine Research Facility -- a facility where researchers can study in-cylinder combustion and emissions under realistic operating conditions. | Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Argonne engineer Steve Ciatti works on an engine in Argonne's Engine Research Facility -- a facility where researchers can study in-cylinder combustion and emissions under realistic operating conditions. | Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the 54.5 MPG and beyond series, a look at fuel economy and emissions standards for passenger vehicles and some of the technologies that will help automakers meet those standards.

Most Americans who own a car or truck probably give little thought to their vehicle’s engine because it operates quietly and reliably with little required maintenance. But for Energy Department researchers who are trying to develop technologies that will make vehicles more efficient and maintain near-zero emissions, the engine is a major area of interest.

A century ago, when electric- and steam-powered cars dominated the market, the internal combustion engine was a newcomer. As inventors improved its design, the combustion engine became the power source for virtually all modern land, water and air transportation. But these engines are far from being as energy efficient as possible. Initial results from lab-developed engines indicate that new ways of combining air and fuel, and igniting the mixture -- often called advanced combustion -- could improve passenger vehicle fuel economy by 50 percent. Looking even further ahead, some modeling suggests vehicle efficiency improvements up to 75 percent may be possible.

Through collaboration between the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Science, the Energy Department is working to increase the efficiency of combustion engines. This research -- in partnership with the auto industry, national laboratories and universities -- will help maximize vehicle fuel economy and durability while minimizing emissions and costs for consumers. Commercialization of these advanced combustion technologies could cut U.S. transportation fuel use and corresponding greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by as much as 20-40 percent, helping automakers meet new fuel economy and emissions standards. 

Ford Motor Company is a prime example of how the Department’s research is benefiting the public. Ford had to meet 2010 emissions standards for diesel vehicles, while maintaining its high fuel economy advantage. Traditional aftertreatment technologies -- which clean the vehicle exhaust emissions -- rely on expensive precious metals and will not work with the exhaust of a lean-burn engine like the diesel. Ford chose to go the road less traveled and develop a new aftertreatment technology -- a major investment for an automaker.

Through cost-sharing, the Department supported Ford’s development from 2001 to 2005 of a high-risk, high-reward technology. Ford led the engineering effort, developing a three-stage aftertreatment technology that uses ammonia-based chemicals to break down harmful pollutants. Now, this technology is the most cost-effective available to remove enough air toxics from diesel exhaust to comply with new emissions guidelines. At the end of the four-year partnership, Ford patented an aftertreatment system that includes technologies developed during the Ford-Energy Department program, and later incorporated that technology in its 2011 Super Duty diesel truck.

Ford’s 2011 Super Duty diesel pickup achieved a multitude of firsts for the company. It was the first with a diesel engine developed in-house, and since diesel engines are more energy efficient than gasoline engines, buyers saw instant fuel economy savings. It was the first light-duty truck in North America designed to run on B20 biofuel, which helps reduce oil consumption. But most importantly -- thanks to the aftertreatment technology jointly developed by the Energy Department and Ford -- the 2011 Super Duty diesel truck was the company’s first diesel vehicle to comply with stringent 2010 emissions standards while not compromising fuel economy. And all of these firsts directly benefited consumers by saving them money at the pump and keeping the air they breathe clean.

With the increased fuel economy and emissions standards for model year 2017-2025 passenger vehicles, the Energy Department continues to foster research and development of innovative technologies -- including even more efficient aftertreatment systems -- that will help improve fuel economy, reduce emissions and help American automakers stay competitive.