It's a bit surprising that the diesel engine was ever viewed as dirty when you consider the inventor, Rudolph Diesel, set out to create a more efficient engine that ran on a natural by-product. Diesel, a German engineer, was traveling in Northern Africa in the late 1800s when he saw people starting fires in a way he'd never seen before. The people placed a small bit of wood in the bottom of a tube, then rammed a plunger into it. The ramming action increased the temperature and pressure, which caused the wood to smolder, then burn. Diesel used this technique to build a more efficient engine than the steam and gasoline versions that were available at the time.
The 1936 Mercedes-Benz 260D was the first diesel passenger car.
His vision was to use this new engine on a farm, powering it with a fuel that farmers could make themselves. As a result, he selected peanut oil as his fuel of choice. It wasn't until years later that the oil was replaced with what is known today as diesel fuel--a waste product created during the petroleum distillation process.
The idea of powering a diesel engine with an environmentally friendly fuel has returned, however. Today, biodiesel, which is derived from vegetable oil, is used quite widely in Europe and is gaining popularity in the United States.
Diesel-powered vehicles represent about one-third of the vehicles sold in Europe.
After Diesel unveiled his creation at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, the engine was first put into use by the military, then in the commercial sector, and finally in the consumer market. In 1936, Mercedes-Benz debuted the world's first diesel passenger car, the 260D. Today diesel-powered vehicles represent about one-third of the vehicles sold in Europe, where the vehicles and the fuel are widely available. In the United States, diesel-powered passenger vehicles represented just 3 percent of the market in 2004, but research firm J.D. Power and Associates predicts they will comprise 11 percent of U.S. auto sales by 2012.
Diesels represent a smaller portion of the U.S. market because fewer diesel models are offered here. The more stringent federal emissions standards, combined with the fact that five states (California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont) won't allow the sale of any diesel-powered passenger vehicles, mean many automakers have opted to stay out of the U.S. diesel game entirely. (Diesel-powered trucks, such as the heavy-duty versions of the Chevy Silverado, Dodge Ram, and Ford F-Series, fall under different emissions rules.) The state-by-state decision began with California, which enacted emissions standards that were more stringent than federal standards because of air pollution problems. As the states in the Northeast realized they had serious pollution issues as well, they adopted the California standards.