When it comes to working with certain objects or substances, it can often be useful to know how we got here now to shape where we think we’re going with that object or substance in the future. Even something like fuel, or more specifically oil, though it is naturally forming in the earth, has a history. Granted, oil may have a history that is millions of years old and has only been documented in the last couple hundred years, but it does have a history.
And yes, the byproducts of oil that have come out over the years due to better and better refining techniques, they also have a history. And diesel fuel has a rich history that officially goes back more than a century, but the product has actually been around much longer. It’s just that before it was considered diesel, it was worthless. If only we had known, right?
Well, we can thank the same person, essentially, for diesel fuel and the diesel engine. Let’s take a quick lookof this efficient, clean-burning oil product.
Diesel Fuel: The Garbage Phase
Before we get into diesel fuel itself, we have to take a step back, to 1851. That is the year that oil first began being refined into usable fuel. James Young, a scientist, created the first oil refinery in Scotland. The initial plan was to refine the oil and pull out paraffin which was heavily used for candles (and still is to an extent these days). Over time, as the refinery process matured, other fuels and byproducts came out of the refining, and new uses were found for the other-than-paraffin products.
Diesel fuel was one of these byproducts, but it was not called diesel fuel at the time because it wasn’t known to be used as fuel or for any other purpose for that matter. For about the first 40 years of its existence, it was called “distillate” which means it was discarded as garbage as just a remnant of what is left after oil is refined into its “usable” fuels and products.
Diesel Fuel: A Revolution
As the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear in the U.S. and Europe, new technologies evolved that found ways to use other byproducts of refined oil. Of course one of the most prominent uses during this time was to power various combustion engines that were coming to the fore.
Automobiles were being designed in Germany in the late 19th century, and locomotives were undergoing some transformative changes where they were getting bigger and heavier and towing larger and larger loads of freight over land from the various harbors. As things progressed, scientist began finding new uses for oil and resulting fuels partly because coal production would not have kept up with the exponentially increased demand for fuel. Coal was the primary source of fuel and even the early days of electrical power.
Rudolf Diesel came along in the early 1890s and was tinkering with a new type of engine. He patented the compression-ignition engine in 1892, and used diesel fuel (called “distillate” at that time) instead of other suggested ideas because it seemed to work best. (He intended to use powdered coal or peanut oil.) What made this engine so revolutionary wasn’t just that it finally made distillate useful, but it was an internal combustion engine; all ignition before was done externally, or outside the engine. As you know, all cars today run with this internal-combustion engine concept.
Of course, the early combustion engines were small and did not have much power – just enough to move a vehicle down the road at a golf-cart speed. However, evolutions in the technology soon developed larger and more powerful engines to where diesel fuel was being used in engines for trains and ships as well as large freight trucks within 20 years of the Diesel engine patenting.
Fueling a Mysterious Death?
With advancements due to the internal-combustion engine, the coal industry which powered the early Industrial Revolution had started to wane in popularity in industry. Coal is still used in many areas today, but nowhere near the levels in its heyday before the evolution of oil refining. Because of this evolution, those who owned the coal mines were seeing their profits cut, and in some circles there was some thought that coal would be completely replaced as a fuel and energy source by the various oil by-products.
It was around this climate that Rudolf Diesel mysteriously vanished ad was presumed dead in the English Channel in 1913. Was it just a matter of his drowning, or were there nefarious factors in his disappearance – such as those in the coal industry who feared for the combustion engine and it leading to the elimination of the wildly profitable coal industry?
Even a hundred years after the death, there still seems to be some unfounded speculations and rumors. But it could be safe to say that whether directly or indirectly, diesel fuel did change lives around the world thanks to Rudolf Diesel and his combustion engine. Next time,for Rudolf.