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Low Temperature Combustion (LTC) momentum

(Part 1 of a series)

Low Temperature Combustion (LTC) strategies offer the potential to enable high-efficiency and low-emission operation. Source: Gurpreet Singh, DOE. Click to enlarge.

Many near-term (<10 years) efforts of industry and academia in developing more efficient, low-emitting engines are being applied to Low Temperature Combustion (LTC) strategies. The recent SAE High Efficiency IC Engine Symposium, SAE 2011 World Congress, and the DOE 2011 Hydrogen and Fuel Cells and Vehicle Technologies Programs Annual Merit Review, together provided a comprehensive overview of major research progress in the area.

In 2010, the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR) convened an invited colloquium of combustion engine experts to reassess the state of combustion engine science and identify new opportunities for technology breakthroughs. Most of the colloquium participants agreed that the maximum BTE (brake thermal efficiency) that could be achieved with slider-crank architecture (the dominant mechanical architecture of current engines) is about 60%, assuming that cost is not a constraint.

Recent achievements in peak indicated thermal efficiency in diesel engines with advanced LTC modes. The leftmost bar shows conventional diesel combustion. The bars to the right depict observations for various forms of LTC, including partially premixed compression ignition (PPCI) and dual fuel PPCI. All efficiencies depicted are based on first law analysis. Loss terms indicated at the top of the bar graphs represent incomplete combustion of fuel. Presented by Dave Foster, U. Wisc., at USCAR Colloquium 2010. Click to enlarge.

There was general consensus that the practical limit for peak BTE for slider-crank engines is significantly less than 60% when additional factors (particularly cost) are considered. The participants agreed that achieving BTEs of more than 60% would require radical changes to present engines, including cycle compounding, new engine architectures, and more constrained combustion reactions. Such radical changes require long-term R&D, but work in this direction needs to begin now, they said.

Currently, the highest peak brake thermal efficiency (BTE) of current passenger vehicle engines is slightly above 40% (i.e., more than 40% of the energy released by the fuel is converted into crankshaft work under ideal conditions). Existing engines lose 20–25% of the fuel exergy due to the irreversibility of unrestrained (non-equilibrium) combustion. This destroyed exergy appears as heat that cannot be transformed into useful work.

In the nearer term, it appears that additional gains in peak efficiency are still possible for slider-crank combustion engines. Many of these gains are likely to come from reduced heat loss achieved by lowering combustion temperatures through various forms of lean, premixed, or partially premixed combustion...The lower reaction temperatures in LTC are also useful for reducing engine-out nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, thereby reducing the need to consume additional fuel for exhaust aftertreatment. Thus, at least for NOx, low emission combustion does not necessarily have a negative impact on efficiency.

...Various versions of LTC have been intensely investigated for the past several years because of their potential for generating reduced combustion temperatures and NOx emissions. Lower engine-out NOx is beneficial for diesel and lean gasoline engines because it reduces the fuel required to reduce the NOx with post–engine aftertreatment for emissions control. The benefits from LTC also extend directly to engine efficiency, primarily because of reduced cylinder heat loss (due to the lower combustion temperature) and the potential for very dilute combustion (due to different reaction kinetics). By reducing cylinder heat loss and changing the molecular properties of the expanding combustion gases, LTC allows more of the energy released by combustion to be extracted in the expansion stroke...

This is beneficial even though the combustion reactions are not moved significantly closer to equilibrium and thus the overall combustion thermodynamics are still irreversible. The combustion irreversibility even increases further with dilute combustion due to the added entropy generation from inert gas mixing. Yet in spite of these irreversibility penalties, the reduced heat loss and better gas properties in LTC are enough to improve net work output. Thus it is now understood that it is possible to actually increase combustion irreversibility (at least a modest amount) and still improve overall engine efficiency.

—Report on the Transportation Combustion Engine Efficiency Colloquium Held at USCAR

Effective LTC needs to avoid an uptick in CO and UHC emissions. Source: Gurpreet Singh, SAE High Efficiency IC Engines Symposium. Click to enlarge.

In his overview of the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Combustion Engine R&D presented at the Merit Review, Gurpreet Singh, Team Leader for the Advanced Combustion Engine R&D Subprogram, outlined the focus on LTC, which is used generically to represent many processes such as Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI), Premixed Charge Compression Ignition (PCCI), and a large number of variants.

Singh noted that challenges to achieving LTC include combustion phasing; load range (e.g., stability and control at high loads where engine efficiencies are high); heat release rate; transient control; HC and CO emissions; and fuel characteristics.

In one of his Merit Review presentations of work being done at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) on high efficiency clean combustion in multi-cylinder light-duty engines, Tom Briggs noted that advanced combustion strategies are increasingly using engine hardware that looks similar, and that these strategies are also blurring the lines between fuel selection and combustion propagation mechanisms.

I think this has come out a number of times in the conference in the comments from the reviewers, but I would say that we are moving to something that you could call a fuel-neutral combustion world. If you look at all these advanced combustion approaches, they start looking very similar in terms of the hardware they require, high EGR rates, in-cylinder injection, and they kind of blur the lines between the fuel you select and the combustion propagation mechanisms. [The different mechanisms] start looking very similar in the way combustion tends to form, propagate, even some of these HCCI approaches that John Dec was talking about. Looking at these across the spectrum you can see a lot of the advanced work converging on very similar approaches, just with a different fuel and perhaps a slightly different fuel delivery system, but a lot of the challenges...are the same.

—Tom Briggs

Briggs’s spectrum of combustion strategies. Source: Briggs, ACE016. Click to enlarge.

Next up: a report on RCCI (Reactivity Controlled Compression Ignition, earlier post) activities and results.


  • Gurpreet Singh, Overview of the DOE Advanced Combustion Engine R&D (2011 Merit Review)

  • Tom Briggs, High Efficiency Clean Combustion in Multi-Cylinder Light-Duty Engines (2011 Merit Review ACE016)

  • Report on the Transportation Combustion Engine Efficiency Colloquium Held at USCAR, March 3–4, 2010


Stan Peterson

Technological progress, isn't it wonderful.


Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like somewhat academic BS idealizing. At very low local equivalence ratio, specific power output will be low, resulting in high friction losses.


Academic research? Universities have been running PCCI at full load, i.e. no difference in friction. If you want to extrapolate from current experimental data, some idealizing must be done. Of course, some issues might be overlooked in a theoretical analysis. Nevertheless, I find the summary very interesting.

With a negative view, one could argue that relative little from DOE funded research in the past has reached production.


Sorry, I referred to PPCI not PCCI... It is becoming increasingly difficult not to mix up these abbreviations.

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