Famed Hot Rodder Sees Opportunity in Clean Diesel Tech

The New York Times October 14, 2009 - online edition

From The New York Times: We sat down with Gale Banks and came away with a genuine hot-rodder’s perspective on the future of clean diesel engines and fuels.

Courage. Determination. Perseverance. Persistence. They’re the words you see on those workplace posters, aimed at rallying the troops and inspiring residents of Office Space-type cubicles to put their noses to the grindstone. Sure they’re heavy on the cheesy factor, but the message they convey is behind the success of every world-class athlete and Fortune 500 company. No framed “Complacency” posters in these halls.

That refusal to find satisfaction with the status quo is behind the development of all Volkswagen products, and it inevitably leads to one question: What if…? As luck would have it, one of the most respected members of the aftermarket community shares that same mindset, and he’s crazy about diesels.

His name is Gale Banks, founder of Gale Banks Engineering. We recently had the opportunity to sit in on a discussion between Banks and the automotive press*, and came away with a genuine hot-rodder’s perspective on the future of clean diesel engines and fuels.

About Gale Banks

Gale Banks has had a lifelong love affair with the internal combustion engine, from tearing apart his first engine at 14 years old to currently researching aftermarket applications for Volkswagen’s 2.0-liter turbocharged clean diesel offering. His work is complex, yet his goal is simple: Improve fuel economy and performance.

Banks’ resume highlights the development of General Motors’ Duramax diesel engine, diesel marine engines used by the private sector and the military, and the world’s fastest diesel-powered drag race truck.

Clean Diesel Technology Today and Tomorrow

“It’s time to change your minds about diesel, folks. It’s clean.” It might seem odd for Banks to make that statement to a roomful of knowledgeable automotive journalists, but it’s a message that bears repeating. With a stake in different manufacturers’ programs, not to mention his own product line, Banks has reason to promote diesel development, but what he envisions for the future differs significantly from what we drive today.

Current diesel-powered passenger cars, like the Jetta TDI and Golf TDI, offer outstanding torque and plenty of usable horsepower. That abundance of torque requires some beefy components to handle internal stresses; Banks sees an opportunity to develop a low-mass (engine weight relative to horsepower) diesel that generates more horsepower and, therefore, can reach greater speeds. It’s an idea more applicable to his dragsters than the Jetta SportWagen, but such advances would likely make their way into our daily commuters.

Another technology that excites Banks is already in the works. It’s dubbed supercritical diesel fuel injection. This is a system that heats diesel fuel, thereby lowering its viscosity and allowing it to be injected more quickly. According to an article published by MIT, supercritical diesel fuel injection can significantly cut emissions and provide a slight improvement in terms of efficiency.

Future Clean Diesel Fuels

“Environmentalists pushed diesel to clean up its act, and thereby guaranteed its future.” Clearly, Gale Banks believes clean diesel engines are here to stay, but that’s not necessarily the case for today’s diesel fuel.

Thanks in part to the distribution of Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) fuel, all new Volkswagen TDI models meet stringent air quality standards set for all 50 states, but so-called second-generation biodiesel is quickly making a name for itself.

One type is cellulosic, which can be created from agricultural byproducts, wood chips, and other non- food materials. The second centers around the use of algae. Yes, that slimy green goo that grows in your pool is actually largely comprised of lipid oil; ExxonMobil and Chevron are just two companies heavily invested in its development as an alternative fuel source.

Finally, there’s the approach being taken by Valero, an energy company that has partnered with a food byproduct recycling company to build a renewable diesel fuel refinery.

*Gale Banks and Bosch’s Lars Ullrich were the two featured speakers at the monthly luncheon meeting of the Motor Press Guild in Los Angeles on September 8, 2009


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