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ORNL, Caterpillar collaborate to advance methanol use in four-stroke marine engines

The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Caterpillar Inc. have entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) to investigate using methanol as an alternative fuel source for four-stroke internal combustion marine engines. The collaboration supports efforts to decarbonize the marine industry, a hard-to-electrify transportation sector.

Methanol is an attractive fuel alternative to diesel because it reduces carbon emissions. Methanol also reduces emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. In addition, methanol’s relatively high energy density makes it easier to store on marine vessels than gaseous fuels—meaning it can be more easily integrated into overall existing engine design and operation.

Although methanol has many advantages, it is more difficult to ignite than diesel. Under the terms of the CRADA, ORNL researchers will work with Caterpillar over the next few years to identify, develop and test hardware configurations and operating strategies required to maximize use of methanol in engines retrofitted for methanol.

Research will be conducted on Caterpillar’s in-line 6-cylinder marine engine that has been modified for methanol use and installed at DOE’s National Transportation Research Center at ORNL. New engine designs will also be considered, and several engine combustion strategies will be explored including dual-fuel, dimethyl ether reforming and spark-ignited prechambers.


The ORNL and Caterpillar collaboration focuses on a four-stroke internal combustion marine engine that will be modified to run on methanol at the Department of Energy’s National Transportation Research Center. The research supports efforts to decarbonize the marine industry by using alternative fuel sources. Credit: Genevieve Martin, ORNL/US Dept. of Energy

Caterpillar will support ORNL by providing additional materials and research expertise to enable engine performance, efficiency and durability while reducing GHG and other emissions.

We look forward to working with Caterpillar to develop near-term combustion strategies that can be retrofitted on existing engines to realize immediate reductions in carbon emissions. We also will develop long-term combustion strategies for new engine technologies that achieve 100% displacement of diesel fuel with methanol. The research we conduct over the next few years will be a significant contributor to decarbonization efforts globally.

—ORNL’s Jim Szybist, section head for Propulsion Science

The project supports DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office’s focus on reducing GHG emissions from off-road vehicles such as railway, aviation and heavy transportation vehicles used in agriculture, construction, mining and marine vessels. These sectors are significantly more challenging to decarbonize than on-road, light-duty transportation applications and require unique solutions.

In addition to DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office, the collaboration is funded by the US Department of Transportation Maritime Administration.


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