Note: The images and inspiration for this story comes from the Motorweek video HERE, which is worth the watch.
Rolling coal. Unless you own your very own Bro-dozer, you probably hate this practice, even if you have no idea what it is. Simply put, it is the practice of dumping too much diesel fuel into a modified turbo-diesel engine, purposefully creating thick black smoke. Here is an example, and while having nothing to do with coal, is as close as most-modern automobiles are associated to the black rock. Considering the United States has some of the largest reserves of coal on the planet, with an estimated 262 billion tons of recoverable coal left in the ground, the coal industry has long tried to breach into the automotive fuel market and bring its weight to bear.
The problem behind these efforts lack of success is a simple, constant one: other forms of fuel are easier to manage. The obvious competitor, liquid petroleum, has the single great advantage of its form of matter: liquid. Compared to the natural state of coal—rock—a liquid fuel is easier to store both in the ground and the vehicle, as well as being easier to transfer between said storage and vehicle. Before it gets to that stage, it is also much less manpower intensive to remove large-quantities of petroleum from the ground, compared to coal which required entire populations to mine. Despite this, coal-powered automotive efforts have experienced brief flare-ups of interest and development, namely during shortages of oil.
In America’s history, there have been three-such periods; World War II, the OPEC embargo coupled with other unrest—namely the Iranian Revolution—in the Middle East during the 70’s and 80’s, and the energy crises we have faced this last decade. During World War II, most efforts were homegrown affairs, and the website Robertsarmory.com details them nicely—with firsthand accounts—here.
With the country’s oil going to the military machine, as well as most automobile production, there was not the available resources for a concerted effort at a civilian coal-powered vehicle. The situation during the 70’s, and the various shocks felt by the United States oil market, was an entirely altogether different affair, and manufacturers had the available resources to devote towards finding an alternate, abundant, energy source besides oil.
One obvious avenue of research was back into coal-powered vehicles. GM engineers at Oldsmobile led the way, and soon decided on something simple: coal in rock form is not a good automotive fuel. Luckily, technology had progressed to a point where coal could be taken, and powdered so finely as to be able to be turned into an aerosol.
Not only does this enable much more conventional combustion—if one can figure out how, but more on that later—it also enables easier storage. The coal was deposited in a rectangular coal-tank, which was located in the engine bay, next to the engine.
The coal was then pumped into the engine via an onboard air compressor, which not only acted as a conventional fuel pump, but also replaced fuel injectors. Luckily, not only had coal-storage/delivery technology advanced far enough to be utilized, the engines to utilize them had also advanced concurrently. Had the Oldsmobile engineers pumped the coal into a normal, production V8, probably nothing would happen besides making the internals extremely, corrosively dirty. Instead, engineers could utilize the relatively new technology of turbine engines.
By using a turbine engine, the powdered coal could be reliably combusted, producing what engineers probably described as adequate performance. Watching the video (seriously, go watch it) shows that acceleration is less than brisk, although would certainly have not been out of place on America’s roads in the 1980s.
Although the decrease in oil prices, coupled with increasing income and fuel efficiency, spelled the demise of the COALdsmobile (sorry…), for the first true effort from a manufacturer, the car had performance on par with its conventional contemporaries. Given sufficient development, one has to wonder if rolling coal could mean something altogether different today.
Alas, this is not the case, and the environment for a coal-powered car seems to have been banished forever. However, as the end of the first decade of the 21st century rolled around, and with it almost $4 a gallon prices in the US as well as a generally-ailing planet, interest in alternatives to petroleum rose again. This third period of development for the coal-powered car is ongoing, and the most successful by far commercially. While no production car is being sold with a coal tank or a turbine, hundreds of thousands of coal-fueled cars now populate America’s roadways. Electric cars, many of which are charged from mains supplied by coal plants, are on the rise, with companies like Tesla and Nissan popularizing battery-operated cars. As long as coal-plants still exist in the United States, our electric cars will fulfill the coal-powered automotive dream, for those who have had it.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.