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Nobel Prize in Chemistry Given to Research That Could Improve Fuel Economy

Fuel Economy - Not Rocket Science, but Pretty Close
Fuel Economy – Not Rocket Science, but Pretty Close

With vehicle emissions standards becoming more and more stringent, automakers are focusing on improving the fuel economy of their fleets.

The internal combustion engine has remained relatively unchanged in principle, but researching fuel economy improvements is ongoing, such as turbocharging smaller-displacement engines, hybrid electric systems, or dispensing with engine altogether. There is still plenty of innovation left in the internal combustion engine, and automakers are able to squeeze more power and more miles from less fuel every year.

If you think about it, the internal combustion engine is much more than a product of engineering, but involves multiple sciences including, among others, chemistry. After all, the basic role of the internal combustion engine is to facilitate a fairly simple combustion equation. For example, part of gasoline’s combustion equation can be represented by 2C8H18 + 25O2 → 16CO2 + 18H20 Basically, just add spark to fuel and you get combustion, albeit very inefficient combustion. In order to maximize fuel economy and power, a little more research is necessary.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry celebrates the achievements of researchers from universities in Strasbourg / Harvard, Stanford, and Southern California. The three researchers, Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel, have developed sophisticated computer modeling systems that have been used to model the combustion process in an internal combustion engine. These models will allow engineers to subtly modify piston shape and head design, as well as valve configuration and spark plug location, among other things, to achieve proper air / fuel mixing and complete combustion. Such developments can significantly improve vehicle fuel economy and emissions.

Image © Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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