GM, Robert Bosch Corporation, and Stanford University will team up in a $2.5M effort to accelerate the development of Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition, or HCCI. This technology would allow for the use of compression ignition techniques similar to diesel engines, but would use lower compression ratios, burn a wide range of fuels, and result in lean-burn operation with reduced emissions. It could be employed in "regular" drivetrains as well as hybrids.

Lean-burn (air-fuel ratios above the ?optimum? 14.7:1 ratio) technology has been used on spark-ignition engines, but with mixed results. It?s difficult to properly ignite a lean mixture with a spark, and the process usually results in excessive NOx emissions (formed when the normally-inert nitrogen comes in contact with leftover oxygen at extreme temperatures). When performed properly, the net result is increased fuel economy, but not because the engine is ?starved? for fuel with the lean mixture; rather, it comes from the fact that the throttle must be opened to provide the extra air, and that results in less work performed by the engine to simply pull the combustion air past a nearly-closed throttle blade. Throttles cause pumping losses, just like a restricted tailpipe, and that prevents gasoline engines from being as efficient as possible.
Diesels don?t have throttles - they limit power by regulating the fuel delivered to the chamber - so they don?t suffer from these pumping losses. Consequently, they run extremely lean under most operating conditions; a air/fuel ratio of 60:1 or greater isn?t unusual at idle.

But if diesels run lean, then why all the black smoke that?s indicative of an excessively rich mixture? That?s because diesels have pockets of rich mixture near the injection point, and it rapidly leans-out near the perimeter of the cylinder. It ends up being the worst of both worlds from an emissions standpoint, and this is why ?clean? diesels have been difficult to develop.

HCCI attempts to inject fuel in such as way as to provide a homogeneous mixture throughout the cylinder. This would eliminate the soot and hydrocarbon emissions caused by pockets of rich mixture, as well as dramatically decrease the NOx emissions caused by areas of extremely lean mixture. It?s also possible to reduce the flame propagation time required to burn all of the mixture, resulted in less wasted power compared to igniting the mixture well before the piston reaches Top Dead Center.

The technique has been explored for at least 25 years, but until recently, the technology required to accurately inject the fuel directly into the chamber has not been available. I?m sure that common-rail injection systems for conventional diesels are lending a lot of technology to this new effort, which means that it stands a decent chance of succeeding.

Comments from GM and Bosch engineers in the article would seem to indicate that additional technology is still required, though. Many SAE papers have been written in recent times about attempts to monitor combustion conditions through direct pressure sensing, optical means, or ionization current measurements, and it?s possible that something like this will be required to make HCCI work in the real world. It?s also likely that HCCI engines will benefit from intake air heater systems, such as those that have been used on large off-highway diesels for quite some time (the ?06 GM Duramax uses such a heater, indicating likely future use on a variety of passenger-car and light-truck applications as well).

Given that the peak pressure of HCCI operation is approximately double that of spark ignition, it?s likely that such an engine would have to be much stronger than a typical modern engine, but probably not as heavy-duty as a traditional diesel if the burn rate is controlled better.

For more on HCCI, including an animation, click here. And here as well. Here, too. And here, if you can read German.

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