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Remembering Rudolf Diesel: inventor of the diesel engine; biofuels enthusiast

09/08/2016 - Sustainability news

The first diesel engine was created to run on peanut oil, invented by Rudolf Diesel - a man who was worried about the dangers of air pollution and wanted to increase fuel efficiency and shake up the energy industry.

Diesel knew that low oil prices at the time meant biofuels were unlikely to take off in his lifetime, but hoped that within the century they might change the way people used energy.

His engine would prove to be so revolutionary that when he disappeared at sea, some people suspected he’d been assassinated by the Nazis trying to keep his technology secret from the British. Others claimed he was murdered by French spies trying to keep the secret from the Germans.

As a young engineer, Diesel became fascinated by the idea of building a more fuel efficient engine than the internal combustion engines of the time. An early attempt with an ammonia-powered steam engine had exploded during tests, nearly killing him and leaving him with on-going health and eyesight problems.

But he stuck with it and created his pressure-ignited heat engine, adapting the internal combustion engine by using pressure so a spark is no longer needed to ignite the fuel-air mixture. His first diesel engine was fired up on 10 August 1893, fuelled by peanut oil.

Diesel knew renewable fuels would struggle in the petroleum-dominated market, and the engine was modified to run on mineral oil. As the engine grew in popularity, oil companies started making a fuel called ‘diesel’ to run the engine he designed and Diesel’s remarkable engine has been mostly powered on this until the present day. Diesel accepted that reality, but said: "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuel may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time."

On 29 September 1913, Diesel disappeared while crossing the English Channel. His coat and hat were folded neatly on deck, a cross marked in his diary for the day of his death. His decomposed body was found in the North Sea 10 days later. Although many of his biographers believe it was suicide, conspiracy theories remain that his engine had led to his murder.

But 100 years on, Rudolf Diesel’s dreams for his engine may at last be coming true. With a growing awareness of the harmful effects of fossil fuels on our planet, there’s a strong desire to develop more sustainable fuels to power our existing fleets. With biodiesel, we’re simply delivering Diesel’s solution 126 years later.

10 August is International Biofuels Day, in remembrance of the day Rudolf Diesel fired up his first diesel engine and changed the world.

Find out more about Z’s solution at www.z.co.nz/biod