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Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Now!

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How come nobody sells a hybrid diesel car?

For those of you familiar only with the sooty smoke belching from older big-rig trucks or the foul smells from 1970s diesel cars, the question may come as a surprise. But modern diesel engine design coupled with the much-cleaner types of diesel fuel increasingly available (particularly "biodiesel") make diesel vehicles a surprisingly environmentally-friendly choice. Diesel-hybrid-electrics would be an obvious positive development. So why don't we see them?

I suppose the answer varies depending upon where you are. In the US, the diesel fuel available in most locations remains the old, dirty, high-sulfur variety, so a hybrid diesel actually wouldn't be a significant improvement in emissions; once low-sulfur regulations take effect in 2006, this may change. In Europe, where advanced-technology "clean" diesel autos are one-third to one-half of the auto market and growing, some diesel cars already get mileage roughly equivalent to hybrids, so I suspect there's simply less demand.

The irony is that diesel hybrids could be far more efficient and clean than anything now on the market, without any leaps in technology. The combination of modern clean diesel engines, Prius-style serial hybrid-electric systems, and biodiesel/vegetable oil fuels could provide amazing mileage, cleaner air, and vastly reduced petroleum dependency. Comfortable, powerful sedans could get upwards of 80 miles per gallon and be carbon-neutral.

(More in the extended entry...)

It's certainly not that diesel hybrids are somehow impossible. Diesel-electric hybrid buses are available and have been rolled out in (among other places) Seattle, Washington and Apeldoorn, in the Netherlands. As for autos, Ford, GM, and Daimler-Chrysler each built prototype diesel hybrids a few years ago which got mileage in the 70-80 mpg range. But the automakers opted not to produce them, as the cars couldn't meet strict air pollution rules while running on the sulfur-laden American diesel.

Combining the power of diesel engines with the efficiency of hybrid technologies can have terrific payoffs. Last year, MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment produced a study (PDF) comparing total lifecycle energy efficiency and greenhouse emissions (including use, production, fuel production, and eventual disposal) of idealized advanced internal combustion, hybrid, and fuel cell vehicles. Diesel hybrids turned out to be much better than gasoline/gasoline-hybrid cars, and highly competitive with the best hydrogen fuel cell systems (even assuming optimistic fuel cell vehicle development). But the best hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will require entirely new hydrogen production, storage, and fueling facilities; reformed-gasoline fuel cells (which are more likely to be used, as they would not require the wholesale replacement of fueling stations) fared much worse.

It's particularly notable that the results in the MIT study were based on the assumption that the diesel fuel would be petroleum-based. One of the compelling aspects of diesel engines is their ability to run on biodiesel, a fuel which does not actually contain any petroleum. Biodiesel is synthesized entirely from plants -- usually soy in the US, and canola/rapeseed in Europe -- and is therefore carbon-neutral: the soy/canola grown to create biodiesel pulls from the air the same amount of carbon the eventual combustion produces. Biodiesel is available both straight or in mixes with regular -- and, up until recently, somewhat less expensive -- oil-based diesel. These fuels are referred to by the percentage of biodiesel in the mix, from B5 (five percent bio) all the way to B100 (straight biodiesel); B20 is a relatively common mix. A variety of companies supply biodiesel around the world; adventurous types can even make biodiesel at home, using vegetable oil.

(Vegetable oil can be used to run diesel engines directly, although doing so can be somewhat risky. SVO, or "straight vegetable oil," can gum up the engine at lower temperatures, so there are SVO-conversion kits available for diesel vehicles which use a small amount of regular diesel or biodiesel to warm up the engine first. This is one way that hybrid technology could really show its strengths: a hybrid-SVO could warm up the SVO with an electric heater while running on batteries at lower speeds, much like the current Prius does. Such a system could easily use regular diesel and biodiesel, as well.)

European automakers are testing the water to see if American buyers, long ago turned off by earlier diesel technology, would be willing to give diesels another chance. The carmakers may want to wait for a couple of years; the 2006 change-over to clean diesel will make diesel vehicles much more attractive. The manufacturers should take advantage of the wait to license the Toyota hybrid system (as Ford did earlier this year) and integrate it with their advanced clean diesel engines. Stylish sedans coupling the power of a diesel engine with extreme fuel efficiency better than anything coming out of Japan -- dealers wouldn't be able to keep them in stock.


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Comments (16)

I love this idea. In the forums I've seen online, diesel enthusiasts and hybrid enthusiasts seem to always be at odds. There's no reason why we should be. A diesel hybrid would resolve that divide.

When I hear the word "diesel", I automatically think carcinogenic and mutagenic particulates in the exhaust. Which is why I hate being stuck behind a diesel vehicle, be it a truck, bus, or Mercedes 300D.

I admit I'm completely ignorant of biodiesel and so-called "clean diesel". What kinds of carcinogens and mutagens are present in these forms of diesel? What studies have been made to show either a total lack or dramatic reduction in both? (I would assume that "clean" means non-cancer causing, but maybe I'm wrong there too.)

When I hear biodiesel I think, argibusiness looking for new markets.

How can I learn more?


Clean road diesel (also known as ultra low sulfur diesel) is limited to particulate density of 30ppm, less than 10% of particulate density of standard road diesel; future efforts can bring that down to 15ppm. The EPA has more info on clean diesel. Studies by the Australian government show a significant reduction in harmful emissions with ULSD. The DieselNet site has more info, but some of it is only available to paid subscribers. It has good links to material from other sources, though.

The production of biodiesel in large enough quantities to sustain a transportation network would certainly involve agribusiness. But agribiz is not the sole catalyst for biodiesel research; as I indicated in the post, the carbon-neutral nature of biodiesel, along with the simplicity of its production, make it a much more sustainable fuel resource. Biodiesel.org has some info, but they do seem to be allied with big ag. Journey to Forever may be more to your liking.

The VW Lupo (a diesel) already has some elements of hybrid technology, including a continuous automatic transmission and electric motor for lower RPMs. From what I understand it gets around 80 mpg and is about the size of a mini cooper, and costs quite a bit less.

I wish they would sell them here in the US but the quality of our diesel is too low. In 2006 this is supposed to change due to federal regulation, so at that point VW and other companies could sell these types of cars in the US.

As far as the drawbacks of diesel are concerned, they have been taken care of. VW double-insulates the engine cage to make sure that noise is sufficiently dampened, and their are scrubbers on the exhaust to minimize the soot. And scrubbing the exhaust is unnecessary when using the high-grade diesel fuels. Test-drive a diesel and you will see that things have changed quite a bit. VW offers three diesel models in the US right now, all of which get about 40mpg city/45 highway: Golf, New Beetle and Jetta. The diesel Jetta also comes in a wagon version. They are all really nice cars.


Diesel engines are perfectly suited for hybrids.
Diesels operate most effeciently when run at a
constant rpm and in a given temp range, both of which fit the hybrid model very well.

For many years diesel trains have been driven
by a large diesel engine generating electricity to charge a battery bank turning electric motors to drive the train. It's the only way trains could get enough torque to start moving, but it is also exactly the model used by todays 2nd-gen hybrid autos. In a sense diesel locomotives were the first "hybrids".

Diesel engines are much simpler than gasoline engines, will burn about anything, and use
standard fuels which require much less refining than gasoline, and are safer to store and transport. And that doesn't even consider biodiesel. We could drastically reduce our reliance on petroleum by going the diesel hybrid route.


For those interested in the effeciency of diesel/electric hybrids at the locomotive scale, there is a nice simple overview at:


I am extremely interested in diesel hybrid cars.

Frank Mancuso:

Bio-diesel could forstall the ever depleating oil reserves said to be overwelmed by demand by 2016. Unfortunatly for us political preasure by lobying corporations will forstall reason.

Jess Macfarlane:

News of a diesel hybrid is very exciting. I'd like to point out that it's not only vege oil that can be used in diesel cars. As a NZer, I'm excited by my government's move toward re-using our meat industry by-product - tallow - as a fuel. Even better than growing crops to produce fuel, is using a waste product that would otherwise be of little profit for the meat industry, and be an environmental problem to dispose of. Companies like ASDA in the UK are already using chicken fat from their cooked chickens to fuel their trucks, thereby saving money and tax, and helping the environment. There is so much opportunity to improve the environment while boosting business at the same time. I hope more people will cotton on to this soon.


I found the article extremely stimulating. I think its important to mention the aspect of diesel eletric hybrid motorcycle as well. I believe there is a company working on this product called the e-cycle


I found the article extremely stimulating. I think its important to mention the aspect of diesel eletric hybrid motorcycle as well. I believe there is a company working on this product called the e-cycle

Lawson, I wrote about the e-cycle earlier: Easy (and Green) Rider

A biodiesel-based, ultra-efficient hybrid-diesel automobile & transportation system would give a putative hydrogen economy a serious challenge, especially since the infrastructure changes required are far less dramatic, the necessary technology far less speculative, and the severence of ties to petroleum nations and industries far more complete.

M. Rocky Rampersad:

I do not comprehend URL. Please explain.

I reside in Trinidad in the Caribbean and purchased a Mitsubishi 4WD L200 4 door pickup with 2.5L normally aspirated diesel and the only way they come here is with a manual trans.

For the past 5+ years the engine has been operating with a fuel mix of 25% dirty sulphur laden diesel and 75% kerosene - A1 Jet fuel. The exhaust is perfectly clean. You take a gasoline engine with the best tuning and this is cleaner.

I am interested in the bio-diesel technology because the cleaner the burn the happier I am for the enviroment. My mix requires nothing special. Kerosene may not be readily available in the US or other locations. Here, kero was cheaper than diesel but the price was raised earlier this year to make them equal at TT$1.50 per liter. The US$1.00 is valued at TTS6.30 to give a comparison or US$0.24 per liter. We drill oil and have refineries and ship the products overseas. That is our local price.

By the way, in all these years, nothing has had to be touched on the engine besides the replacement of the coolant pump 2 years ago. The mileage being clocked, hard miles in the boonies as well as highway, is 350,000 kilometers fairly trouble free with minimal exhaust pollution.

From my addres you will realise that I am a friend of the enviroment using solar, wind and water as alternative renewable energy sources and encouraging others to do the same.

jeff wilsbacher:

Hybrid-diesels are indeed a great idea within the umbrella of "each person should be moving 1,200-3,600 pounds of glass, steel, rubber and plastic everwhere they go". But personally I think that with current technology the automobile as the primary form of personal transportation is foolish.
Especially foolish when we could switch to something like http://www.skytran.net and get the equivalent of hundreds of miles a gallon, not have to deal with traffic, not have to deal with bad drivers, and not have to deal with the hassles of owning a car (insurance, maintenance, registration etc.) and get from point a to point b at 100 mph. And we could do this with directly with electric energy (the advantage being that we could generate this with [currently affordable] wind power, solar power and or tidal power).
Yes, we'll still need construction vehicles, delivery vehicles, emergency vehicles, rural vehicles, farm vehicles and some will want recreational vehicles, but that is a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of vehicles that are on the road every year. Most miles driven are sub-urban and urban, and an effient people mover is what is needed. Most commercial products could be delivered to within a couple miles of thier final destination by rail, just as fast and more efficiently than they are now.

The true cost of gas or diesel is easily greater than $5 a gallon (when federal corperate subsidies to oil companies and federal defence dollars used directly to protect US oil interests are included). Driving your car is public transportation (very, very expensive, very, very ineficient public transportation) in view of the cost of roads, petroleum subsidies, environmental damage, and loss of limb and life. Cars turn thier drivers into virtual supermen, allowing them to run at 65+ miles per hour for hours at a time while carrying extra thousands of pounds. Everyday there is evidence that people are not responsible enough to be those supermen.

While biodiesel, petroleum from thermal depolymerisation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_depolymerization , and enzyme hydrolysis of plant cellulose http://www.purevisiontechnology.com/technology/hydrolysis.html all provide alternates to traditional petroleum ,there won't be enough to replace our currently wastefull usage. We need to begin moving as fast as we can towards sustainability now, that doesn't mean we must live less comfortably, but it does mean we need to think more about the consequences of all our decisions.

Joseph Burke:

Locomotives, submarines and many other types of vehicles have long used diesel-electric hybrid technology in one form or another. When Chrysler showed the Dodge Intrepid diesel-electric hybrid a few years ago, I was impressed. Here was a full sized car that was getting better fuel efficiency than most small cars and was a lot more convenient to drive than other alternative fuel vehicles. The only things holding it back then was emissions, but now that we have low sulfur diesel being mandated by Washington that hurdle should be cleared, and extra cost. There was something like a $12,000 price premium tacked on to the cost of a base Intrepid and not many people would shell out that kind of money. Advances in technology since then should have brought the price premium more in line with peoples wallets now so this is the time, Chrysler. Let's get that Intrepid hybrid out of the vault, update the tech, and start putting them on the street!!

Sarah M. Brown:

Hi i am looking for a kit to change my car from gas to diesel. I have friends in England who have been useing used cooking oil for quit some time in thier cars. They have had no problems with the cooking oil except in the winter. My friend say that there trucks over there also use the cooking oil Sam Club, WalMart etc:. I live in Florida which is warm about 95% of the time.
My friend strain the used oil then puts it in thier cars and winter they use the diesel.
They get thiers use oil from restaurant so does WalMart,Sams Club also chines restaurant.
I hope this is good infomation for you.
Please email me info, as to where i can get the kit to conver.

Thank You,
Sarah Brown


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