There are a lot of words associated with sustainability and climate change. Some of them are overused buzzwords, while others are meaningful descriptions of new technologies and policies that are able to help the planet. One of the strongest words associated with addressing global warming is decarbonization — but this word is also used to describe another process that has little to do with climate change, yet everything to do with creating more fuel-efficient vehicles.   

In this article, we will cover the differences and similarities between engine and electricity decarbonization. On the topic of engine decarbonization, we explain what it entails, how it works, and how it applies to your engine and overall vehicle health. After that, we’ll also dive into the challenges and benefits of electricity decarbonization. Lastly, we’ll take a look at the future of decarbonization — both in terms of engines and energy usage.  

What Does Decarbonization Mean? 

Decarbonization can mean two things: It can refer to moving away from energy systems that produce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions, or it can refer to removing carbon buildup and carbon deposits from internal combustion engines. While both of these processes involve removing carbon, they do it in very different ways.   

Energy decarbonization involves shifting the entire energy system in an attempt to stop carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere before they are ever released — and part of that process also involves using carbon capture technologies to remove CO2 from the air after it has already been released. This involves decarbonizing power grids, decarbonizing supply chains, and utilizing carbon sequestration in the pursuit of net-zero emissions and a carbon-neutral global economy.   

Engine decarbonization is much different, and it involves removing built-up carbon residue that accumulates in internal combustion engines from fossil fuels that release carbon when they are burned. 

What Is Engine Decarbonization? 

Engine decarbonizing does not involve switching to electric vehicles to avoid carbon emissions. Rather, it involves cleaning up the carbon residue that is left over from the conventional fuel supply used in internal combustion chambers. Carbon deposits build up mainly on the cylinder head and pistons of traditional engines, and when these are removed, it helps maintain proper engine function. Decarbonization improves engine performance, as it reduces engine noise, reduces vibration, and restores fuel efficiency. It also decarbonizes other important parts of the engine, such as catalytic converters, and other parts of the vehicle, such as exhaust sensors. 

How Does Engine Decarbonization Work? 

There are two main ways to decarbonize your car’s engine: a mechanical process and a chemical process.   

With the mechanical process, the engine is exposed, and the carbon deposits are physically removed by scraping them off. This requires an exacting technique, so it is usually best to leave it to a competent, well-trained mechanic. If mechanically scraping off carbon deposits is not done correctly, it can be detrimental to your engine.  

Using the chemical process, however, is much less intrusive on your engine. It uses solvents that are simply added to the conventional fuel supply, which then dissolve the carbon deposits that have formed in the fuel injectors, spark plugs, intake valves, and anywhere else that has developed carbon buildup. After the process removes the carbon, it is released from the vehicle’s exhaust system. 

Who Created the Engine Decarbonization Process? 

The first patent for an engine decarbonization method was filed in 1915 by William E. Ahern, and it is a widely held view that he is considered the inventor of the process. Later processes that improved upon this original process, namely chemical decarbonization, were developed much later. But Ahern’s mechanical decarbonization process was the first one to be developed in any commercial manner.  

Is Engine Decarbonization Necessary? 

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With modern engines and the restrictions that have been placed on carbon emissions from fossil fuels, it is debatable if engines truly need to undergo any decarbonization process. Given that most engines currently running (at least those manufactured in the last 15-20 years) comply with emission reduction norms, the amount of carbon deposits are likely to be very low, no matter the make or model of the vehicle.   

However, there are still circumstances for when decarbonization would be needed — it just strongly depends on what the car is demonstrating while driving. Vehicles with heavy carbon deposits typically show signs such as knocking and compression pressure that is well-above recommended levels. A noticeable decline in mileage or available power could also be the result of heavy carbon deposits in your engine.   

One way to decarbonize your engine without having to undergo the full mechanical or chemical process is to use fuel additives as preventive maintenance, like a constant tune-up for your engine. These help not only remove carbon deposits that have already built up, but they can prevent them from building up in the first place. 

When Should Engine Decarbonization Occur? 

If you do decide to decarbonize your engine, you need to know when it is appropriate to do so. Similar to how oil changes are needed at set intervals, there are specific periods for engine decarbonization as well.  

You should get your first decarbonization treatment at or around 18,000 miles (30,000 km) — but if you have gone significantly longer than this without getting the first treatment, you should avoid it altogether. This is because the carbon buildup could be at a point where if it were removed it could create a gap between the cylinder wall and the pistons, leading to knocking and a decrease in compression pressure, which will ultimately harm the performance of your vehicle.  

It is also important to note that you should not frequently decarbonize your engine; there is a reason why decarbonization is absent from regular car service packages. Make sure to explore all possible reasons that your engine is not performing optimally before opting for decarbonization — and make sure to only do it at the properly designated mileage periods. If you’re ever unsure, talk to a trustworthy mechanic about your options.  

Is Engine Carbon Cleaning Your Worth It? 

Though decarbonizing modern, fuel-injected gasoline or diesel engines is not warranted — and most manufacturers recommend not to do it given the strict emission norms in place that ensure low levels of carbon deposits — it still might be worth it to clean carbon from your engine in certain situations.   

If your vehicle’s engine is feeling sluggish and losing fuel economy, it might be worth looking into whether carbon buildup is the issue. If that is the case, and the mileage is not too high, it could be worth looking into decarbonization processes to improve your engine performance.  

What Is Electricity Decarbonization? 

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Electricity decarbonization has the same basic principle as engine decarbonization: removing carbon from the system. However, the main difference is that removing carbon dioxide from the electrical grid means stopping it from occurring in the first place (although there are an increasing number of carbon sequestration projects that capture carbon from the air). This means more than simply switching off fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, such as solar power and geothermal energy. It involves increasing energy efficiency and looking for clean energy resources that are not typical renewables, such as SMR thorium power or green hydrogen.Electricity decarbonization has the same basic principle as engine decarbonization: removing carbon from the system. However, the main difference is that removing carbon dioxide from the electrical grid means stopping it from occurring in the first place (although there are an increasing number of carbon sequestration projects that capture carbon from the air). This means more than simply switching off fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, such as solar power and geothermal energy. It involves increasing energy efficiency and looking for clean energy resources that are not typical renewables, such as SMR thorium power or green hydrogen. 

What Does it Mean to Decarbonize Electricity? 

The bottom line is that regardless of what resources are used, decarbonization of electricity entails moving away from energy usage and other processes that emit the most common greenhouse gas (GHG): carbon dioxide.  

Electrification is the best energy transition path we currently have to try and keep in line with the Paris climate agreement goals. Not only is this easily integrated with global economic sectors, but it is also cost-effective, and most importantly, we know it works. However, with electrification comes increased demand for electricity — which means significantly more electricity generation is needed. In fact, some people predict that we will need up to twice as much electricity to cover full-scale electrification of the global economy.   

Decarbonizing our current worldwide electricity generation is a difficult challenge — needing to not only get to 100% of current capacity with renewable energy but also to reach three times the current level. That is why true decarbonization of our electrical grid and energy systems cannot rely on renewables alone. Every form of alternative energy, from small-scale nuclear power to methanol to all forms of hydrogen need to be utilized to get us to the point where carbon emissions are reduced to nothing and we reach a net-zero carbon world.  

Decarbonization in the Future  

As we move toward a more carbon-neutral global economy, and greenhouse gas emissions are continually reduced in all aspects of society, engine decarbonization will become less needed. More and more people are switching to electric vehicles each year, which do not require decarbonizing at all, and modern internal combustion engines are seeing less carbon buildup as fuel efficiency continues to increase and carbon residue in fuels continues to decrease.   

Decarbonizing electricity and energy usage is a complicated challenge that will require a global effort to achieve. This will involve deep decarbonization, utilizing out-of-the-box energy resources and creating entirely different systems for how we generate and consume not just electricity but also energy in general.  

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