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Tracing Diesel's Roots

Before Rudolf’s Engines Burned Oil, They Actually compressed Ammonia

Text By Jason Thompson

Right now, I’m reading the instruction manuals for the Fairbanks Morse Type 32, two-cycle, 32E12 and 32E14 diesel engines. I found this powerplant (shown) at an old dude ranch (now a State Park) northwest of Las Vegas called Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs. According to an informational pamphlet I found, Mr. Goumond created the ranch around 1941. At this time, Nevada relaxed its divorce laws so people started coming to this Wild West oasis to gain Nevada citizenship and thereby obtain a legal split.

Technology and Society
I’ve always thought it was interesting to study how technology has changed our society—and how society has changed our technology. For example, without Mr. Diesel’s invention, you wouldn’t be reading this magazine right now. Plus, our transportation industry would be a lot less efficient and therefore more expensive without his push toward combustion perfection. The United States has been the leader in agricultural mechanization (another major shaper of our new world), and when Diesel’s patent ran out at the turn of the 20th century, many U.S. companies began putting diesels to work on the farm.

Fairbanks Morse and Food
Allis-Chalmers, Nordberg, and Fairbanks Morse started producing diesels in Wisconsin, which was home to many German immigrants. These engines were cutting edge at the time and replaced the once-dominant steam engines in a few short years. Diesel engines gave more power to farmers and meant less and less labor to grow more and more acres.

The other advancement in farming technology that made plants bloom like never before was synthetic nitrogen. Before the German chemist Fritz Haber invented a way to extract nitrogen from our air, farmers were dependent on natural sources of the nutrient obtained from bat and bird poop. Without the invention of synthetic nitrogen, many believe we wouldn’t have the resources to feed the earth’s growing population.

The only negative side effect of this advancement is we now have too much nitrogen in our lakes, rivers, and oceans because of fertilizer that drains into our watersheds without getting to the roots of the plants. The nitrogen creates algae blooms that suffocate the chance for oxygen-rich water—which is needed for most forms of life.

Ammonia Power
The more research I put into anhydrous ammonia used as an energy source, the more I’m beginning to like it. Also known as, “the other hydrogen,” it is the second most produced chemical in the world. The infrastructure to carry it is already in place. This is not a new idea—ammonia engines were found in streetcars decades ago.

Ammonia is not a foreign substance; those with an agricultural background know the dangers of this commonly used fertilizer. The word anhydrous means without water. In large enough concentrations of NH3, gas suffocation is possible, and as the gas leaves the tank it will freeze skin instantly. Thankfully, it has a pungent smell to warn us of small leaks. In smaller concentrations, the gas will burn and can permanently damage the wet parts of your body—if not treated with large amounts of water.

Still, many experts say it is far safer than flammable gasoline as a motor fuel. But as with all technologies, it can be used for good as well. Right now, most ammonia is derived from fossil fuels. But at the University of Minnesota, Morris, a wind turbine, water, and nitrogen from the air produces the NH3. Ammonia is much easier to transport compared to running power lines, and a variety of power sources can be used to generate it. Currently, a few companies are producing systems to allow you to run ammonia in your diesel engine as a supplement similar to CNG fumigation. Ammonia has a temperature of ignition greater than 1,560 degrees and a narrow air fuel ratio needed for combustion: between 16 to 25 percent NH3 compared to air. Companies are researching and developing a more perfect NH3 engine.

History Repeating
The ranch I visited was once totally self-sufficient, including a large hay field, fruits and vegetables grown year-round, a refrigerated meat locker, a blacksmith shop, and wild parties. I’d like to see a modern version for friends and families.

By Jason Thompson
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