Monday, January 18, 2016

The VW TDI Engine Tragedy.

Clearly VW has stepped in it big time, and clearly they will have to pay but just as clearly there are dangers in sacrificing the baby with the NOX bath water. As an expert in crisis PR with an abiding interest in energy and more recently renewable clean energy, there are some serious silver linings in this black cloud story, but first let’s try and analyze the problem in a mature and adult manner.
What is the crux of this situation, in a sense is  VW and Audi’s almost slave like determination to promote their hugely successful TDI engines beyond what they could support or deliver. The little machine that won LeMans several years in a row, put diesel power way ahead of a number of very sophisticated gasoline engines while delivering unbelievable MPG and performance still has a long life ahead of it.
The TDI is what the diesel should have been when it was first started running on peanut oil. Then the actual petroleum fuel that came out of the design centers in Germany exploited the additional energy that resides in diesel fuel. Make no mistake, the diesel engine by and of itself stands way above any other system in their ability to transform a liquid into work. And therein lies the tragedy.
Because it forgoes the ignition system of the four stroke gas powered engine, it causes the fuel to burn through a scientific combination of pressure generating heat which reaches the explosion phase at just the right time of the cycle. In the beginning the diesel engine was used for its immense torque in very large applications like trucks, power plants and ships. The delicate balance between torque and performance dictated the application and with the advent of renewable biodiesel, the possibility of using the diesel in more mainstream applications became a real quest to have their cake and to eat it cleanly.
In the US the diesel continued to be the ugly, smelly and noisy duckling that could never become a swan, but in Europe, where the cost of fuel was through the roof, the governments subsidized the sale of diesel fuel and in consequence diesel engines. Mercedes, VW, Audi, later all the French and British manufacturers followed suit and soon whatever was available in gas was available in Diesel. In France, for example, over 40% of the cars ran on diesel, even though the cost of the car was higher due to the more expensive power plants and support.
Millions were invested and all was well with the world, but two looming issues would soon challenge the emerging diesel supremacy. The first was the search for power, nothing new there because diesel cars have always been perceived as being poky and all the refinements brought to the gas engine could not be adapted to diesel, ignition fiddles, higher compression, and others were non starters. The only advantage the diesel really had was the fact that because of its compression ignition happening at high temperatures generated by high compression, the machine itself had to be built like a brick outhouse.
It actually goes beyond the simple software fiddles, to make the engines perform as stated they had to increase the amount of oxygen going through, hence the turbochargers that stuffed air through the intakes. But while stuffing air meant more oxygen it also meant more nitrogen and oxygen and nitrogen combining at high pressure and temperature made the NOx levels skyrocket and there are no shortcuts to chemical reactions. That this was happening was suspected and proven way before the scandal broke as several research studies had proven. Essentially what the US study had proven was that what was too good to be true, was too good to be true and how the fiddle had been performed.
VW and others rigged the game simply by detecting testing situations, dialing them into the software and rigging the exhaust parameters to show much lower levels of pollutions when only the driven wheels were turning as it happens in a smog test.  But it was an open secret based on the assumption by VW that allowed those bypass codes to be invoked in critical situations that could endanger the engine or the occupants. In short, they were allowed to design bypass scenarios, they were not allowed to use them at will.
So what of the fuel? Simply put, diesel fuel has gone through a slow and steady redesign over the years and right now there are several grades of refined diesel fuels available on the market. From the sludge like bunker fuels taken on board to power supertankers to the ULSD (ultra low sulfur diesel) available at the pumps as well as the additional availability of various concentration of biodiesel, from B5 or 5% bio to B100, pure diesel fuels from various organically grown vegetable oils and fats.
It is worth noting here all that fuels have been manipulated to allow higher compressions, reduce specific knocking issues and generally be altered to meet specific environmental conditions like lead poisoning that spurred the elimination of tetrahedral lead from the seventies to the year 2000. California and other regions have area specific fuels designed to meet more or less stringent conditions. Could this be one avenue for the diesel fuel and engine? Probably less easily as can be imagined. Early engines did not rely on digital fixes that allowed the ECU to control the parameters of the fuel consumption so they had to change the game by changing the fuel. Just removing the lead created significant problems for the engine makers as well as the petroleum companies, and yet hardened valve seats were installed, timing was adjusted, direct injection and other evolutionary fixes were installed and horsepower increased.
But in those remote times, when a chemical product threatened the planet, the financial interests of the corporations took a back seat to the health of the world. Recall the incredibly effective Freon recall that slowed the erosion of the Ozone layer in a matter of years. Recall also the lead, the PCB and other hugely successful products banned and dismissed quickly and permanently with little fuss and bother. That is no longer the case in America and a few other countries. The movement is to deny evidence and press on regardless with the damaging situation.
Global warming is undeniable. Ocean pollution is undeniable, GMO poisoning and widespread use of antibiotics damage are undeniable, and yet, and yet we have our new corporate citizens in denial for as long as the profits flow like tar sands to the refineries.
Back to the TDI, it operates at high compression with massive amounts of air being rammed through to mix with an essentially unsuitable fuel. There are ways to solve the software by rewriting code to not circumventing the testing parameters, what is harder will be rewriting the chemistry of a non-NOx producing engine.
Arguably the simplest solution could be for VW to offer a onetime conversion kit to natural gas for all the affected engines. On paper it would work simply because methane and other forms of natural gas have a lower burn temperature for peak output without significantly affecting the horsepower of the engine. With all the sick TDIs running around, the case could be made to have VW recall and convert, then resell the cars into a completely clean transportation cadre. That kind of project would work for a government agency that could develop the infrastructure to support the project.
VW is in a crisis, make no mistake, because they not only cheated, they did it blatantly and over a long period of time. They were outed supposedly by an American team of engineers making some very obvious studies. In effect the team brought their exceptional PR backing which made the story more appealing although less relevant.  In crisis PR the key is always to explain what happened then find a solution that will stop hurting the company and start it on the road to recovery. The cost is irrelevant if within reason. Converting to natural gas is one, very attractive, solution that would open up the TDI to a whole new market and if done correctly still allow the little diesel to romp and play in the diesel world.
Peter Brown, a recognized author of several articles on climate change, biodiesel, solar and other alternate energy sources, is the founder and Principal of Euro Marketing Tools, a sales and marketing group specializing in the creation of ecologically friendly energy producing facilities in Europe and the United States. Peter has had extensive experience in various forms of power and energy project marketing, from CANDU reactors before Three Mile Island, to the James Bay Project and more recently solar, biomass and biodiesel projects.  A multilingual graduate of Washington College, he now specializes in bringing biodiesel to Europe and Africa from his home base in California. He can be contacted at or 1-408 628 9020