Rudolf Diesel: The Father of Compression Diesel
The Father of Compression Ignition
Let's get one thing straight: Rudolf Diesel is not Vin Diesel's great-grandfather. Vin's real name is Mark Sinclair, but that sounds a bit too boy-next-door for a tough-guy actor. What better way to create an aura than to use the name of tough-guy fuel? Diesel powers much of our economy in the form of big work trucks, agricultural vehicles, locomotives, bulldozers, marine engines, and the like, but the man who invented the compression ignition engine probably wasn't a tough guy either.
He was, however, an incredible engineer, one of those really smart types who would no doubt have thrived in any period of human history. He was born in Paris in 1858 to German parents, but he moved to the Fatherland when he was 12, where he won a scholarship at 14 to study engineering at a Munich college. A bout of typhoid slowed his inevitable progress, but he finally graduated with highest honors in 1880 and headed back to Paris.
Up to this time, people were using steam engines ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. However, Diesel recognized that they were highly inefficient, wasting as much as 90 percent of their energy. So he went about developing a smarter alternative, with the original idea of helping small businesses compete with the steam-driven monoliths of commerce.
Diesel filed a patent for an internal combustion engine in 1894, where fuel was injected at the top of a piston's compression cycle, and that combination created ignition. He almost died before that. During his experiments, he was still looking at a steam-type engine but using ammonia. It exploded. Diesel was hospitalized and had lingering health problems long after, but by 1897, he had a fully functional 20hp four-stroke, water-cooled engine in an upright single-cylinder configuration.
Naturally, diesel fuel distilled in the petro-chemical process did not exist as such. Our hero was looking at coal dust as a fuel. The idea of using biodiesel or even leftover cooking oil from restaurants is not exactly new. Diesel's engine was always meant to be run on different fuels. During his lifetime, peanut oil was used with success.
That whole "helping the little guy" approach didn't work out quite as Diesel envisaged. As we have witnessed, the steam-driven monoliths of commerce changed their equipment and energy supply. By 1912, more than 70,000 diesel engines were already operating in factories and generating electricity, but Diesel was more prescient in other ways. He warned about the effects of pollution, which is kind of ironic since diesel engines in buses and trucks were pretty filthy until the last part of the 20th century and have contributed significantly to poor air quality in many cities around the world.
On September 29, 1913, the "Dresden" mail steamer left Antwerp in Belgium heading across the lower part of the North Sea for Harwich, a port on the east coast of England. Diesel was on board. The story goes that he was planning to sell patents to the British government so it could put his engines into its navy's submarines (he had already sold the American rights to Adolphus Busch of the Anheuser-Busch brewery). He never got that far, disappearing from the deck in the middle of the night. Conspiracy theorists conjectured that he was thrown overboard by powers anxious to prevent such a military advantage. However, his journal and actions suggest otherwise.
His bed had not been slept in, and his coat was found folded neatly by a deck railing. He had previously emptied his bank account and left a bag with the approximate equivalent of $1,000,000 in cash for his wife to open at a later time. And against this fateful date in his journal, he had written an X. Just over a week later, a Dutch fishing boat found a bloated and decomposed corpse out on the open water. It was identified as Diesel by personal effects and consigned once again to the deep.
The evidence points to suicide. What we'll never know is how Diesel got to that dark place. It could have been physical health problems or perhaps depression. He had suffered a nervous breakdown and was said to be erratic in his behavior. Brilliant minds are often troubled minds.
More than 100 years on, diesel engines still have staying power and might even be coming into a new phase. Audi recently created a synthetic diesel fuel from water and carbon dioxide that can be used in current diesel engines with no modification required. Here's the spine-chilling part: This Audi facility is located in Dresden, which is also the name of the boat from which Diesel fell.