Saturday, April 14, 2012

Blood and Diesel: The Diesel Engine

How much do you know about diesel engines? I didn't know much at all before the research for this bit. XD


The first successful diesel engine was operated in 1897 by Rudolf Diesel, a German born to an expatriate family living in Paris. The “City of Lights” sparked the young Diesel’s imagination and his abilities as an engineer made him lauded by the intelligentsia of the continent.

Perhaps the most notable fact about Rudolf Diesel other than his self-named invention is that he was a dedicated social reformer. Having spent his life surrounded by the results of the “steam revolution,” Diesel also saw the damage done to individuals, families, and nature itself by the coal-burning steam piston engine. Steam engines were loud, dirty, heavy, and dangerous; the combination of heat and pressure made them liable to explode, and the exposed pistons—necessary for maintenance—made them quite capable of ripping off fingers or even limbs. He also viewed the industrial revolution as the end of individual effort, a time in which the work of geniuses was going to be subsumed into the vast emptiness of mass production.

Rudolf Diesel envisioned a safer engine, working at a lower temperature with a better thermal efficiency and less need for either open flame or gouts of boiling water. The diesel engine creates its initial thermal reaction by compressing the fuel until ignition occurs. At the end of the great industrial revolution, efficiency was everything; while few people cared about Diesel’s politics, the fact that he had made an engine with significantly greater efficiency at far lower cost.

The only hitch was the fuel source. Diesel experimented with coal dust, whale oil, and vegetable oils as fuel, but he was convinced that a better source existed. By the time of the 1911 International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden, he had found it in the form of distilled petroleum. The direct distillation, which he called simply “diesel fuel,” had a few issues, including turning into nonfunctional gel at temperatures below freezing, but the fair-runners were so impressed that dozens of nations were soon ordering diesel engines for their ships, airships, trains, and automobiles. Indeed, the diesel engine may well have made the widespread adoption of the automobile possible at all.

Rudolf did not live long enough to enjoy his success, unfortunately. Only two years after the “diesel revolution,” he was on a cruise in the Atlantic and disappeared from his ship. Ten days later, his body was recovered from the ocean, identifiable only from his personal effects. Though the death was ruled a suicide, more than a few suspected that the good professor might object to some of the uses that European powers were planning on for his wondrous device. Less than a year after Diesel’s mysterious death, the Central Powers rolled out their new war machine on the world—and at the heart of that war machine were diesel-powered tanks, diesel-powered zeppelins, and diesel-powered warstriders.

The horrors of the Great War were made significantly more far-reaching by the addition of the powerful diesel engine. When the war ended in 1918, few nations looked forward to the possibility of another one. Unfortunately, the shift to petroleum as the staple fuel diminished the worldwide reliance on coal and instead made resource-hungry nations seek out more sources of readily-available oil. The Middle Eastern nations have grown wealthy from the trade in “black gold,” though many have become little more than puppets for Western powers.

Whether for good or ill, the modern world could not exist without the Diesel Engine.

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