NECESSITY, INVENTION, ETC.
May 11, 2011 Vol. 7, No. 10
You’ve got to love necessity. It has this wonderfully causal relationship to invention, and bears that child absolutely every time it arises. Like me and a deadline, I guess. The closer it comes, the busier I get, and the better my work. Like an awful lot of us, I suppose, and certainly most journalists. Aside from those who crumble in a panic, most of us somehow manage to flick the imagination switch and get ‘er done, often with just minutes to spare.
On a somewhat larger scale but with precisely the same dynamics, the world is looking for a way to keep fossil fuels viable until such time as a better alternative is ready to rock. Of course, mother necessity is bearing offspring on both those fronts.
Believe it or not, I’ve come across another two fairly revolutionary internal-combustion engine designs that are either in or near prototype stage. One of them combines the efficiency of a diesel engine with the relative cleanliness of gasoline, meaning a commercial-vehicle diesel engine fuelled by gas. Right now power density is an issue but progress is being made. I’ll save that for a coming newsletter because I have yet to succeed in getting an interview with any of the engineers involved in this one.
I’VE ALSO UNCOVERED THE REASON why some post-2002 diesel engines have fared better than others in terms of reliability and fuel consumption. I exaggerate, possibly quite a lot, but my recent interview with the head of a software outfit has me wondering. It’s about the amount of time and resources — and limits of same — that go into designing the perfect combustion moment.
Bernie Rosenthal, CEO of Reaction Design in San Diego, patiently took me through his company’s new software package, called Forte CFD, that acronym standing for ‘computational fluid dynamics’. It’s for the chemists and others who deal with the extensive 3D modeling of fuel effects used in creating optimum combustion in internal-combustion engines.
You may be surprised to know just how many chemists are involved in the design of our modern diesels. Engine makers won’t divulge numbers for competitive reasons, but there are many hundreds at each company vying for your business, conceivably more than that. Hasn’t always been the case, rather it’s a modern phenomenon of the emissions-control age.
In any event, the development of a modern diesel starts on a computer and stays there for a long time before ideas are first tested on, likely, a little one-cylinder piece of iron long before a real prototype is built. Perhaps the biggest single challenge in that process is figuring out how to make diesel fuel explode and push the livin’ crap out of a piston efficiently in terms of both consumption and the handling of byproducts like nitrogen oxide. That’s accomplished by a long string of computer simulations, and the accuracy and speed with which they’re done is critical.
That’s where Forte software comes in, and Rosenthal claims that his CFD product provides accurate results in just hours where traditional CFD tools would take days or weeks. He wants a chemist to get a simulation running at the end of his work day and come back to his computer the next morning to find it done.
Now, I’m way out of my depth here and I suspect you are too. Frankly, I agreed to this interview a little reluctantly precisely because what I know about such software and high-level chemistry isn’t worth knowing. Then I thought, what the hell, I’m bound to learn something. And I did.
I also saw the clear implication that if there are limits on the time and money that can be spent on this one particular aspect of the engine design process, as surely there are, then the company with more resources is more likely to get it right. And if amongst those resources are CFD modelling tools that test more possibilities than the competitor can manage in the same timeframe, then the chances of success are raised again.
As it happens, I know an engine designer — not a chemist but a mechanical engineer — pretty well, so I called him last night and asked him if my thinking was overly simplistic. Yes and no, he said, in a brief conversation. We’re going to talk again when we both have more time so I’ll write about this in another newsletter soon. I find it fascinating.
For now, let me take us back down to earth.
HINO’S A WINNER, AGAIN. Hino’s 2012-model 338 won medium-duty honors in the Commercial Truck of the Year competition at the recent American Truck Dealers convention in Phoenix. It’s the second year in a row that the company has won this award, last year for the model 268 (both are pictured here, the 338 in the foreground).
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