Future outlook: Diesel to play ‘important role’ in path to zero emissions


Diesel will continue to be a key player in the future even as competition grows from alternative fuels and policymakers plan new environmental regulations.

That was the message at a virtual event where representatives from Cummins Inc. and other industry leaders, including John Deere and Neste, discussed some of the forces they believe will shape the future of the diesel industry, including the development of new technology, regulatory changes and shifting customer demands.

The event was held online Nov. 10 by the Diesel Technology Forum, which describes itself on its website as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of diesel engines, fuel and technology.

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Cummins, based in Columbus, is developing new technologies that complement its internal combustion engines and is seeing increased interest from customers who have their own sustainability goals and want to achieve zero emissions, said Wayne Eckerle, vice president of research at Cummins, who participated in the event.

“That path to zero (emissions) will involve a mix of energy conversion technologies that will use diverse carbon neutral and renewable energy sources that we could be using in our internal combustion engines,” Eckerle said. “ … Diesel engines, (internal combustion) engines in general, will continue to play a very important role in the path to zero emissions.”

Cummins is investing in “technologies that have less impact on the planet” as part of its New Power business segment, which includes electrified power and hydrogen technology, the company said.

Last year, Cummins announced it would locate the new headquarters of its new Electrified Power business segment at Columbus Engine Plant, also known as Plant One, at 500 Central Ave.

The event Nov. 10 was held as the diesel industry finds itself at a crossroads of sorts, as alternative fuel technology grows in viability and concerns about climate change continue to reshape how companies and policy makers think about energy consumption.

Diesel fuel is refined from crude oil and is used to fuel compression-ignition engines named after their inventor, Rudolf Diesel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Most freight and delivery trucks, buses, farm and construction vehicles and some cars and pickup trucks use diesel engines, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says. In 2019, the U.S. transportation sector consumed about 47.2 billion gallons, or 1.1 billion barrels, of diesel fuel, which was roughly 15% of total U.S. petroleum consumption.

“When we think about the future, we see ourselves really straddling two points in time,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, during Tuesday’s event. “One is the world we are in today, which is a position of energy abundance, where the U.S. is a major producer of fossil fuels and really a net exporter of fossil fuels to the world. And we see aspirations for a clean energy future to address issues such as climate change.”

In July, 15 states and the District of Columbia signed a memorandum of understanding to “advance and accelerate the market” for electric vehicles with the goal of requiring all new medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sales in those states to be zero emission by 2050, according to the California Air Resources Board, which is part of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

That would include large pickup trucks and vans, delivery trucks, box trucks, school and transit buses and long-haul delivery trucks, many of which potentially using Cummins engines and technology.

The states included California, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

“The (memorandum) will go a long way toward slashing harmful diesel emissions and cutting carbon pollution,” the board said in a statement. “The transportation sector is the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and also contributes to unhealthy levels of smog in many of the signatory states.”

However, there has been a “resurgence of interest” in advanced biofuels, including biodiesel, which Schaeffer said could be a near-term solution for reducing diesel emissions.

Biodiesel is renewable, biodegradable fuel manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled restaurant grease, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Diesel engines were invented to operate on biofuels, including peanut oil, and some experts and groups, including the Diesel Technology Forum, believe the “flexibility of the diesel platform” could facilitate the development of lower emissions technology.

California is currently achieving its greenhouse gas reduction goals in part due to clean diesel technology, Schaeffer said.

By 2027, heavy-duty diesel trucks in the United States are expected to be responsible for most of a projected 1 billion ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, according to the forum.

“We’ve seen an explosion of full opportunities with not only gas and diesel but biodiesel, ethanol, renewable fuels, hybrid hydrogen and on and on,” Schaeffer said. “So there’s tremendous opportunity and changes coming for new fuels and technologies, but also the existing fuels and technologies like diesel have a role to play in the future, as well.”

Cummins has seen its New Power segment grow with the company developing and acquiring “significant capabilities” over the past five years in electrified powertrains, battery design and assembly, battery management, fuel cell and hydrogen generation, the company said.

The segment had $18 million in sales during the third quarter of this year, Cummins said.

On Wednesday, Cummins announced it is working with Navistar International Corp. to develop a Class 8 truck powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The project will be funded in part through an award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy as part of the DOE’s H2@Scale initiative to develop affordable hydrogen production, storage, distribution and use, the company said.

In October, Cummins announced Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. received a zero-emission Blue Bird electric-powered school bus powered by a Cummins PowerDrive 7000EV battery.

Last year, Cummins unveiled its environmental sustainability strategy out to mid-century, called Planet 2050, including reducing greenhouse gas and air emissions, using natural resources in the most sustainable way possible and helping communities address their major environmental challenges.

Tuesday’s online discussion also came just days before Cummins leaders, including Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Tom Linebarger, will hold a virtual event to discuss the company’s outlook on the future of hydrogen fuel technologies and how Cummins expects its hydrogen production and fuel cell business to develop.

The event, called Cummins Hydrogen Day, will be held Monday and also include speakers Amy Davis, vice president and president of New Power; Thad Ewald, vice president of corporate strategy; Mark Smith, vice president and chief financial officer; and Amy Adams, vice president of fuel cell and hydrogen technologies.

“Some of the emissions levels for California are certainly prepping us for what might come in other parts of the world, but we really have to be nimble,” Eckerle said Tuesday. “We have to be able to deal with whatever happens in any part of the world.”

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To learn more about Cummins Inc., visit cummins.com.


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