New, cleaner diesel fuel - with sulfur reduced 97 percent compared to the fuel it will eventually replace -- is opening the door to a new generation of diesel vehicles in the United States.

The new ultra-low sulfur fuel went on sale Sunday and has replaced 80 percent of the old diesel formulation at stations across the nation. With its relatively low sulfur content - 15 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur compared with 500 ppm found in the old fuel - the new fuel is a significant milestone in making diesels as clean and popular as they are in European markets.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Stephen Johnson said in a conference call with reporters this week that the fuel rollout represented "the single greatest achievement in clean fuel since lead was removed from gasoline more than 25 years ago."

"Diesel vehicles have always been 20 to 40 percent more energy efficient than comparable gasoline engines," said Schaeffer. "With the switch to cleaner fuel, consumers will see more fuel-efficient diesel cars, pickups, and SUVs on showroom floors in the years to come." Schaeffer added that new 2007 diesel trucks will emit just one-sixtieth the soot exhaust of one produced in 1988.

Getting cleaner

The cleaner fuel is the result of a series of compromises among environmentalists, diesel engine makers, oil refiners, and theU.S. government, which first proposed the rules back in 2000 when Bill Clinton was still President, according to supporters of the new rules, who compared them to the rules that took lead out of gasoline.

Cleaner fuel is critical because sulfur tends to hamper exhaust-control devices in diesel engines, in much the same way lead once impeded the effectiveness of catalytic converters on gasoline cars, according to Allen Schaeffer of the Diesel Technology Forum of Washington D.C., which represents companies with an interest in diesel technology.

Richard Kassel of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the cleaner fuel represents a significant step toward cleaner air in large urban areas. Urban smog, to which old-style diesel engines especially contribute, accounts for a significant amount of illness and as many as 8300 deaths annually, according to the EPA's own studies, Kassel added.

Just putting the clean fuel into the estimated eight million diesel engines now on the road will reduce emissions by as much as ten percent, Kassel estimated.

"Diesel is the invisible force that moves the American economy, but until now it has also been a big polluter," said Kassel, head of NRDC's Clean Fuels and Vehicles Project. "Combining the new fuel with cleaner and more energy-efficient engines will mean healthier air and help reduce our dependence on oil."

More diesels coming?

The ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel regulation was proposed specifically for heavy-duty engines used in tractor-trailers and other heavy-duty industrial equipment. Starting in January, makers of the heavy-duty diesel engines will roll out engine systems equipped with exhaust-scrubbing technologies that work in tandem with the cleaner fuel to reduce soot and smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions.

But, Kassel says, automakers looking for ways to boost fuel economy will also benefit from clean diesel. The Diesel Technology Forum estimates diesel engines can boost fuel economy by between 20 percent and 40 percent over gas engines while offering nearly equivalent emissions.

For right now, the new diesel fuel is available, but vehicles that take full advantage of it aren't yet on the market. Recent diesels from the likes of VW and Mercedes-Benz need significant re-engineering to meet tougher diesel-emissions rules and to work with the new clean diesel. Mercedes-Benz is aiming for 2008 to sell its new diesels in all 50 states, and is trying to meet the new standards for diesel emissions by treating exhaust emissions with a urea spray system called Bluetec.

Until the tougher standards are met, sales of diesel engines are effectively barred in states such as California and New York, making it difficult for carmakers to justify selling diesel-powered vehicles in the U.S. without those key markets.

But automakers are working to meet the new standards and are pitching diesels as a less expensive, more proven alternative to hybrid vehicles. Diesel engines cost about $2000 more than conventional gasoline internal-combustion engines, per vehicle, but they are still less expensive than hybrid systems that add more than $3000 to $4000 to the cost of a vehicle.

J.D. Power & Associates expects the U.S. market for diesels to grow from 3.6 percent this year, or about 600,000 vehicles, to about nine percent in 2013, or 1.66 million vehicles. By 2015, they project diesels to have a 12-percent market share, or 2.2 million vehicles.

Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler are preparing new mid-range diesel engines that they plan to roll out in 2008 and 2009 for optional use in pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Honda has said it plans to introduce a diesel vehicle within three years capable of meeting California's emissions standards, but through different catalyst technology.

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