MTU development chief Dr Andreas Lingens talks about the technological possibilities for increasing the availability and cost-efficiency of MTU engines and reducing maintenance costs.
Will dump trucks, trains and ships still be powered by internal combustion engines in 2020?
Yes, definitely. Other types of drive system are not yet capable of delivering the power that those vehicles need. Electric drive systems running on fuel-cells or accumulators would theoretically also be possible, but both have limited power density and range, particularly on account of their energy storage systems. But there will undoubtedly be an increasing level of electrification around all aspects of the IC engine. And we will make engines smarter so that our customers will be able to run them more economically and in a way that suits the specific application better.
So what are "smart engines"?
Ultimately, it is about three things: our clients want to run their engines economically, they want the engines not to break down and they want to be able to maintain them as cost-effectively as possible. Up to now we have always serviced all engines of a particular class at a fixed rate according to a set maintenance schedule. In future, engines will be able to tell us when highly stressed components, consumables and filters need replacing. We are developing remote data analysis methods for that purpose. We use data loggers to record operating data from the Engine Control Unit and send it to our analytics systems via the mobile phone network or LAN. The engine data is then analyzed so as to provide the customer and ourselves with information about the engine and the application. Servicing is no longer carried out after a fixed number of operating hours, but exactly when it is necessary according to specific utilization. What is more, the maintenance of our engines is becoming more predictable and so causes less disruption to the operator's processes.
Do smart engines offer operators other benefits?
Yes. We can, of course, offer customers many more analyses relevant to economical operation of their plants or fleets. Our clients can use the data as indicators of how to run their engines more economically, that is to say for optimum operating cost efficiency. They can be notified when the engine is not running at optimum efficiency, for example, when the person operating it is not doing so in the best way – by being too heavy on the accelerator, for instance. Smart engines can tell us, so to speak, how they can be operated and maintained in the most economical way.
What part does electrification of the diesel engine play?
That is the second big issue we are concerned with. It will be many years before large off-highway vehicles can be powered completely by electric motors. But at least partly electrifying the powertrain is an effective means of making our engines more economical and compact. For example, a smaller internal combustion engine could be used as the main drive unit, with extra power available from the electric motor when required. We have already applied that principle in a railcar driven by our hybrid powerpack. And it also has the advantage of regenerative braking. Whenever the railcar has to brake, the braking energy is converted into electrical energy that can be used for motive power. And this concept also enables us to provide power for other electrical equipment in the railcar. Hybrid configurations of this type are also conceivable and likely for use in ships, large construction vehicles or agricultural applications.
As yet there are only a few hybrid applications in the off-highway market. What is the hybrid drive system lacking in terms of a breakthrough into the off-highway market?
Designing a hybrid drive system is very complex and more costly when there are only a few applications, as has been the case so far. But I am certain that in future there will be more systems of this type with standardized interfaces and cheaper components. A particularly important aspect is the cost of energy storage systems, i.e. battery technology. In that area we can benefit from improvements in the automotive industry. Economical operation is becoming a big issue. However, in terms of the engine itself, the possibilities for more reductions in fuel consumption are limited. With many operating profiles, we can only significantly reduce consumption by moving towards a hybrid system.
And looking at the diesel engine on its own, what are the parameters that you can still adjust?
Firstly, we will continue along the path of emissions reduction that we have followed in recent years. Over the past ten years we have lowered the emission of nitrates and soot particulates by between 50 and 90% depending on application. And although emissions reduction works against efficiency, we have still been able to reduce fuel consumption by as much as 10%. In doing so, we have undoubtedly secured the future of diesel engines. At the same time, we are increasingly using exhaust aftertreatment systems to lower emissions even further.
Regardless of how efficient or clean the diesel engine can be made, it will ultimately not get past the problem that oil reserves are finite. What role will synthetic fuels play?
Synthetic fuels will play a part even if their spread is being held back by the low price of oil just now. But oil reserves are finite, and we have two possibilities: producing fuels with the properties of diesel from other sources (e.g. gas to liquid), or directly using alternative fuels such as gas or methanol or other biogenic fuels. We are examining this issue by looking into the approval of gas-to-liquid fuels of various specifications for use in our stationary gas engines.
In which areas will natural gas be the dominant fuel?
Wherever the cost of fuel is a major factor. For continuous-duty power generation, gas engines have virtually displaced diesels. And, of course, we are testing gas engines for marine applications. But even locomotives, large pump engines and mining vehicles could be operated much more economically with gas. One challenge is the fuel supply, i.e. storage in tanks and delivery to the engine. But we will find ways around that. Apart from lower fuel costs, lower CO2 emissions and more economical emissions control for future emission stages are increasingly important aspects.
Will hydrogen one day become the fuel for off-highway engines?
Hydrogen is an attractive fuel which will have a role to play. But there are many challenges to overcome before we reach that point. Infrastructure and storage are the biggest issues. In both cases we are in a sort of interplay with the automotive sector. The decisive factor will be whether the fuel cell is widely adopted in cars or whether straightforward electric drives establish themselves. In my view, it is still very much an open race. But it will certainly be possible to build off-highway engines that are fueled by hydrogen when the time comes.
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