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Bridging the gap between gasoline and diesel engines, and developing less manufactured fuels are among the initiatives under way at the Aramco Research Center - Detroit

New Aramco research center in Detroit to advance fuels and engine development

The automobile and petroleum industries have a history or working toward common goals. Examples from history include gasoline with the additive tetra-ethyl-lead in the 1920s to reduce knock, to today’s lead-free or reformulated gasoline for cleaner emissions.

Following that tradition perhaps more aggressively, Saudi Aramco has now built an R&D center in Detroit. The oil and energy giant has said it wants to seek advances in new and novel engine technologies while developing future liquid fuels. The center is operated by Saudi Aramco’s U.S. subsidiary, Aramco Services Co. Another R&D goal is reducing the complexity of engine systems for more affordable and environment friendly powertrains.

According to David Cleary, Detroit Research Center Leader, one focus of the center’s scientists is engine technologies for light-duty or passenger engines. “[We are] bridging the efficiency gap of throttled spark-ignition engines with the significantly higher efficiency of fully unthrottled compression-ignition engines,” he said.

"The primary challenges for the more conventional spark-ignition engine,” said Cleary, “are abnormal combustion events such as pre-ignition and super- knock.” Their focus is on the highly downsized boosted direct-injection spark-ignition engines that are becoming prevalent. Through examining the effects of fuel chemistry to minimize occurrences of these combustion events, they hope to provide more robust ignition and combustion processes.

They also want to enhance the engine’s dilution tolerance, according to Cleary. Dilution is using an inert gas in the combustion chamber to reduce peak combustion temperatures, which reduces formation of noxious emissions. Exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) is one method often used to dilute. Too much dilution, however, leads to combustion instability and misfires.

Another focus is the commercial heavy-duty sector. For this, they hope to enhance the combustion process though better optimization of the fuel and combustion system, allowing for lower fuel pressure and minimizing the aftertreatment requirements. Less aftertreatment means less cost.

To accomplish these goals, they want to design the fuels. Fuel design means examining alternatives compared to the well-known or established gasoline and diesel fuels available today. “Fuel design is really about taking a fresh look at options that will enhance the engine’s overall performance,” Cleary said.

What is in it for them? Possibly less processed or manufactured fuels that require less energy to produce and that reduce wells-to-tank CO2 emissions. “These fuels use the same crude feedstock but are less manufactured compared to gasoline or diesel, which is upgraded to achieve high octane or cetane. Less processed fuels provide the opportunity to better match the engine-fuel system, especially for compression-ignition engines that operate on lighter fuels,” he said.

The center was strategically chosen for its location near much of the U.S. auto industry’s engineering activities. Over the next few years, the Detroit center will be strengthening relationships and collaborative efforts by participating in industry consortiums focusing on engine and fuel research. “The Detroit center builds upon Saudi Aramco’s existing research and development center philosophy of not working on fuels in isolation, but rather looking at the fuel and engine as a single system to be optimized synergistically,” said Cleary.

He believes collaboration is an important part of the Detroit center’s operating model: “Fuel formulations and combustion interactions are best advanced when various companies focus on their respective areas of strength. Most [automotive] OEMs have tremendous expertise in engine and combustion system optimization for today’s certification fuels. Combining the center’s efforts with others such as these, OEMs creates the opportunity to generate fully optimized powertrain or engine-fuel systems."

Cleary also believes the center’s vehicle integrated activity will provide opportunities to fully understand a technology potential. Once selected technologies are integrated into a vehicle, there will be an opportunity to generate fleets to further validate the technology.

“Essentially the center looks for collaborators with similar goals yet different business focus to address transportation challenges,” Cleary said.

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