Canadian scholar, Vaclav Smil, attempts to remedy the “appreciation deficit” of diesel engines and gas turbines in his recently published book, Movers of Globalization.

If asked what human invention would quickly plunge us into a pre-Second World War industrial state if removed, most people would answer the computer chip.

Take away the world’s beloved digital devices and technologies such as email, texting and instant overseas communication, and there goes the modern global world.

Wrong, says Winnipeg’s Vaclav Smil, a professor in the faculty of the environment at the University of Manitoba and an expert in technology and energy systems.

As a public intellectual and a prolific author of some 30 scholarly books (few of which are available on local bookshelves), Smil has attracted the attention of such readers as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Smil specializes in demolishing popular beliefs. For example, in one of his other 2010 releases, Why America is Not a New Rome, Smil argues against what he calls an overdrawn historical analogy.

Now, in Prime Movers of Globalization, he states that his main goal is to remedy the “appreciation deficit” of diesel engines and gas turbines.

According to Smil, the world’s abundance of high-tech communications systems and devices is not the main thing supporting fast-paced global trade and the inexpensive consumer society in which we currently live.

His heroes of globalization are the “boring” and “unthought-of” diesel engines on today’s shipping boats and the gas turbine engines of commercial jet aircraft.

Smil constructs a readable and detailed narrative of the history of diesel engines and their creator, Rudolf Diesel, whose lack of recognition for his invention and the early controversy surrounding it, likely led to his suicide in 1913.

He praises the diesel engine at the expense of another of our ubiquitous technologies, the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine (ICE), which, Smil explains, wouldn’t suffice for the quantity of goods moved across the globe today.

Diesels are simply more efficient, reliable and durable than the ICE, he says, and can be built at large enough scale to move the huge container ships plying the world’s oceans.

Along with big boats, diesel engines power shipping via trains and long-haul trucks, which together move over 95 per cent of U.S. freight.

Smil’s discussion of jet turbines is no less interesting and meticulously researched. Jet turbine engines were quickly adopted over reciprocating (propeller) engines for commercial aircraft after the Second World War for their better speed, range and much-reduced vibration.

Smil’s almost child-like enthusiasm for the history of these indispensable inventions and their manufacturers is palpable, even as he maintains a very detailed and technical approach. This book, like most of his other works, is not for the math-challenged, as it is jam-packed with statistics that at times can border on the overwhelming, if not monotonous.

Throughout his many works, Smil recognizes the possible negative effects of climate change from the burning of fossil fuels. Yet he often seems dismissive of the potential magnitude of the changes coming our way.

In this case, Smil proposes that diesels and turbines are in it for the long haul, and the greenhouse gases that their operation generates are inconsequential in comparison to the benefits they bring to modern societies.

Smil is equally dismissive of a peak in global conventional oil production that may be already upon us. He seeks to reassure us with the stock answer that technological improvements will help us exploit unconventional sources and that an oil peak is still at least 30 years off.

While some readers may disagree with his position on these issues, his argument that these technologies are the “prime movers” of our economy is persuasive. Besides, can Gates’s favourite scientific writer be that far off?

Matthew Havens is a research assistant with the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. He studied under Smil in 2001.

Emissions Technology, Inc. (ETI), the maker of the patented UltraBurn™ Combustion Catalyst System today announced their new “Direct Injection” Series catalyst delivery system to serve diesel engines up to 30,000 horsepower. The UltraBurn product line reduces engine fuel consumption and lowers emissions.

“The new DI system further expands the usefulness of the UltraBurn catalyst into performance enhancement when used with biodiesel or heavy fuel oil,” said Mark Spoon, CEO of Emissions Technology. Spoon went on to point out that the exciting new addition to ETI’s product line has been under development for nearly a year by ETI scientists and engineers. “It employs a novel injection technology coupled with new catalyst formulations and was extensively tested at CEE labs in California earlier this year,” Spoon added. Patents are pending on the new delivery system.


The four-cylinder wave is about to hit even luxury barges: Mercedes-Benz will offer a small, four-cylinder diesel engine in Europe for its top-line, typically V-8-powered S-Class sedan, the first four-banger in 60 years of the model.

To meet Euro carbon rules and sell cars to rich Europeans with a green bent, makes like M-B, Audi and BMW are looking for ways to put an eco spin on even their conspicuous-consumption models. There are no plans as of now to offer the small diesel in the U.S.

But Mercedes will be the first of the big luxury-car makers to put such a small engine in its top-line model, according to a report by Bloomberg News. It will try to maintain a semblance of performance for the 2-ton-plus sedan even with a 2.2-liter diesel four-cylinder: The S250 CDI, due at dealers next year, will have a two-stage turbo that is expected to be good for 204 hp., a 149 mph top speed and 0-60 in about 8 seconds.

How green?:

The diesel’s estimate of 41 mpg is greener than the S-Class hybrid — which gets about 19 city, 25 highway.

“Green luxury is feasible,” Verena Mueller, a Mercedes spokeswoman, told Bloomberg in Stuttgart. “We expect to attract environmentally conscious customers who are seeking the lowest possible CO2 emissions.”

The downsizing also is a response to what the economic troubles have done to demand for luxury rides. The smaller engines are also cheaper and would let automakers give shoppers a price break and keep them from trading down to cheaper brands or even small cars under their own brands. The diesel four-banger will be the equivalent of about $5,000 cheaper that the Euro V-6 S, but still $38,000 more expensive there than the entry-level E-Class.

“The business models of Mercedes, BMW and Audi wouldn’t support a massive migration of customers to smaller models,” said Christoph Stuermer, a Frankfurt-based analyst at IHS Automotive. “We’re going to start seeing extreme versions of bigger cars to keep customers from drifting down.”

BMW offered a six along with the eights in its top-line 7-Series this year but has no immediate plan for a four, nor does Audi for its A8 sedan. For now, anyway. Both have electrics in development.

Fred Meier/Drive On