Diesel's on track to enter the fast lane

Audi wins a race with help from gas-to-liquids technology.

By Mike Spear

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The back pages in newspapers traditionally feature sports news, and it’s not often that we can follow suit here on CP. This month, though, we can make an exception, with some justification, for the March 18 results at the Sebring International Raceway, Sebring, Fla.

That day, Audi Sport North America won the “Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring” — making history as its prototype Audi R10 TDI became the first diesel car to win a major international sports-car race. Driven by seven-time winner of the French 24-hour Le Mans race, Tom Kristensen, along with Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello, the winning car was Audi’s No. 2 in the race — the almost identical No. 1 car, driven by defending Series champions Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro along with Marco Werner, withdrew after about four hours racing, despite having taken a 40-second lead (over the Audi No. 2) by the end of the first hour.

Both cars are prototypes of the Audis that will be entered in next month’s classic 24 Heures du Mans (June 17, Le Mans, France), the most prestigious sports-car race in the world and one that Audi has won five times in recent years with its R8 gasoline-fueled models. “You can say Audi brought out a car today that isn’t a test car, but close to it,” Kristensen said about his Sebring winning car. “This engine was only white paper a few months ago. This project has been a lot of motivation for Le Mans.”

“We started development with a clean sheet of paper,” explains Ulrich Baretzky, Audi Sports head of engine technology. “This engine is the… most powerful diesel there is in the world and, up until now, the biggest challenge that Audi Sport has ever faced. There has never been anything remotely comparable.”

What has emerged from those designs on paper only a few months ago is a completely new 5.5-litre (the maximum allowed at Le Mans), 12-cylinder bi-turbo TDI (the “turbo diesel injection” technology invented by Audi), all-aluminum engine that boasts a power of over 650 hp and a torque of more than 810 ft-lb (1,100 Newton-m). All delivered, of course, by diesel — a fuel that has long been airily dismissed by so many motor-sports enthusiasts.
But Sebring was not won using any ordinary diesel. Shell, a partner in Audi’s successes with its R8 cars, has had a technical partnership with the car maker for the R10, and has used that relationship in further developing its V-Power Diesel. This advanced fuel is a blend of “normal” refinery diesel distillates with “synthetic” diesel produced by Shell’s GTL (gas-to-liquids) technology based on Fischer-Tropsch processes.

Shell has been retailing premium diesel containing its GTL fuel in Thailand since 2002 and in parts of Europe since 2004. Now available at more than 3,000 filling stations in Europe, the low-sulfur fuel is targeted at drivers in countries looking to reduce overall emission levels, who want to improve energy efficiency levels without having to upgrade or modify their engines. (Shell also is working with Choren, Freiberg, Germany, on making diesel from biomass (see p. 15), with a pioneer plant expected to start up early next year.)

With a history dating back 60 years or more, GTL processes now seem set to enter the fast lane of those commercially significant technologies that move, apparently seamlessly, from the arcane to the almost mundane — their advantages taken for granted as rapidly as the problems they solve are forgotten. Should an Audi R10 emerge victorious at the Le Mans track next month, an outcome that would not be surprising, not just a German car manufacturer and an Anglo-Dutch oil company will celebrate — so, too, will the chemical engineers who have over the years refined a sometimes forgotten technology into a genuine world beater.

Mike Spear, editor at large
MSpear@Putman.net

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