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59042.  Sat Mar 11, 2006 4:55 pm Reply with quote

Q: Who is to blame for global warming?

A: Rudolph Diesel. Or possibly his disciplinarian parents, for raising such a damaged ego.

If Diesel hadn’t been such a vain, uncooperative, paranoid man his brilliant invention - the diesel engine - might well have caught on instead of the petrol engine, with all the environmental problems the latter has brought us.

Rudolph Diesel (1858-1913) was born in Paris, of Bavarian parents, and grew up in various European cities. He began his career as a refrigeration engineer, but like so many young engineers and scientists of his time was drawn to the idea of devising a power source more efficient than steam, which was enormously wasteful.

The principle of what became the diesel engine was first explained in England in 1890 by Herbert Akroyd, but it was Diesel who made the first working models. He was nearly killed when an early model exploded all over him, but he kept going and by the turn of the century was exhibiting his radical variation on the internal combustion engine.

“The primary difference between a conventional auto engine and a diesel engine lies in the way the fuel-air mixture is ignited. The first requires a spark plug to create an explosion in the cylinder. Rudolph Diesel's creation compresses the mixture in the cylinder until it heats sufficiently to explode on its own. The conventional engine requires a lightweight fuel distilled from petroleum whereas a diesel can run on a heavier derivative made from crude oil, coal tar, or vegetable oil.”

Rudolph envisaged his engines running on (what wasn’t then called) biofuel - specifically, peanut oil and hemp - so that farmers could grow their own fuel.

He saw the USA as the natural market for diesel - it was huge, people travelled long distances, and it had plenty of farmers to grow the fuel. Sad, then, that the US is one of the least diesel-savvy places on earth. (Although some environmentalist celebrities have done their best; Daryl Hannah has won an award for her efforts in promoting biodiesel; her car runs “entirely on vegetable oil from local fast food restaurants near her Colorado home,” and her emissions - or at least, those of her stylish El Camino - apparently smell of “French fries or donuts.”)

Rudolph seems to have been bitter that his invention was not immediately and universally adopted; in particular, he felt that it was unreasonable to except a genius like him to work out the petty details of diesel - surely, lesser mortals could take care of all that nonsense? Instead, far too early in the process, he turned his attention from science to commerce - to promoting the diesel engine long before it was ready for the market. Because of that, diesel did not become (until many decades later) a practical, cost-effective method of powering domestic cars.

Diesel died during a crossing of the English Channel, probably as a result of suicide; although he became rich from his patents, he had heavy debts at the time of his death. By then, he’d undergone several nervous breakdowns. One night, after supper on board ship, he simply vanished. His body was eventually found floating in the sea; as was the custom at the time, belongings were taken from it for identification, and then the corpse was returned to the water.

Some believe that he was murdered by one of the great powers, possibly Germany: the German Navy was beginning to use his inventions in their nascent submarine fleet, which Diesel - for religious and internationalist reasons - vehemently opposed. It is suggested that when he died he was on his way to Britain to defect.

Diesel technology was taken up - and taken over - by the petroleum and automobile monopolies against which Diesel had struggled his whole life. Very quickly, the essential, revolutionary principle of the diesel engine - that it could be run on almost anything - was conveniently forgotten, and diesel engines became merely marginally more efficient exploiters of petroleum. What we call “diesel fuel” is a dirty, wasteful perversion of everything Diesel stood for.

The diesel principle of self-sufficiency - which he believed would transform agriculture in poor regions - is only now being rediscovered, as the global oil crisis begins to bite. “Biodiesel” is a return to Diesel’s founding ideal.

Just think how different our world would have been, if Diesel had been psychologically capable of properly developing and marketing his invention. Instead of invading small, defenceless countries for their oil deposits, great empires would have spent the last hundred years invading small, defenceless countries for their peanuts.

“The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the course of time as important as petroleum products of the present time.” -Rudolf Diesel, 1912.

‘The Illustrated Biographical Dictionary’ ed. Simon Boughton (Blitz, 1991).
‘The Hutchinson Softback Encyclopaedia’ 3rd edition (TSP, 1996).

59427.  Mon Mar 13, 2006 5:59 am Reply with quote

“There are now more than 100 biodiesel filling stations around the UK selling more than 700,000 litres of fuel each month, produced mainly from recycled cooking oils.”
- Co-operative News, 7 March 2006.
See also


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