100 Years After Rudolph Diesel’s Passing, His Legacy is More Popular Than Ever

By Paul Riegler on 24 September 2013
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A Self-igniting Idea Prevails 100 Years Later

Rudolf DIesel

Rudolf DIesel

The inventor of the engine that carried his name, Rudolf Diesel, died exactly one hundred years ago today but his idea for a more efficient engine has lived on and moved well into the mainstream.

Indeed, at the time of his death, the diesel motor was in its earliest stages and far removed from today’s high-tech oilburners.

Diesel was the first person to prove that fuel could be ignited without using a spark.  In comparison to four-stroke gasoline fueled motors that use a sparkplug, the diesel engine uses the heat of compression to ignite an air-fuel mixture introduced into the engine cylinder, making it highly efficient in converting heat energy into useful work.

Diesel completed the first working prototype of what has come to be called the diesel engine, a 25-horsepower, four-stroke, single vertical cylinder compression engine, on August 10, 1893.

Diesel engines burn fuel oil, which requires less refining and is cheaper than higher-grade fuel such as gasoline. During the combustion process, the stored chemical energy in the fuel is converted to thermal, or heat, energy. The temperature in each cylinder rises as high as 2,480°C, creating pressures of about 100 kilograms per square centimeter. The pressure pushes against the tops of the pistons, forcing them to the other end of their cylinders. The pistons are connected by rods to a crankshaft that transforms their linear motion into rotation of a shaft, thus supplying power to vehicles or machinery.

Diesel engines were first used to power automobiles in the 1930s. The first manufacturer to produce a diesel-powered car was Mercedes-Benz in 1936. Today, one out of every two cars in Europe is a diesel according to the Verband der Automobilindustri, a German trade group.  The percentage used in ships and trucks is closer to 100%.  While the number of diesel-powered passenger cars in the U.S. is relatively small, it is nonetheless showing a marked increase and their sales have doubled in the past three years.