U.S. Energy Information Administration logo

Diesel fuel explained Use of diesel

The inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, originally designed his engine to use coal dust as fuel. He also experimented with vegetable oil before the petroleum industry began making petroleum diesel fuel. Most diesel fuel we use in the United States is refined from crude oil. Use of biodiesel made from vegetable oils and other materials is now also common.

The first diesel engine automobile trip was completed on January 6, 1930. The nearly 800-mile trip was from Indianapolis, Indiana, to New York City. The trip demonstrated the potential value of the diesel engine design, which has been used in millions of vehicles since its inaugural trip.

A photograph of a large freight truck that has a diesel engine

Freight truck with diesel engine

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

Diesel fuel is important to the U.S. economy

Most of the products we use are transported by trucks and trains with diesel engines, and most construction, farming, and military vehicles and equipment also have diesel engines. As a transportation fuel, diesel fuel offers a wide range of performance, efficiency, and safety features. Diesel fuel also has a greater energy density than other liquid fuels, so it provides more useful energy per unit of volume.

In 2018, diesel/distillate accounted for about 20% of total U.S. petroleum consumption and about 22% of total petroleum consumption by the transportation sector.

Diesel fuel is used for many tasks

Diesel engines in trucks, trains, boats, and barges help transport nearly all products people consume. Diesel fuel is commonly used in public buses and school buses.

Diesel fuel powers most of the farm and construction equipment in the United States. The construction industry also depends on the power diesel fuel provides. Diesel engines can do demanding construction work, such as lifting steel beams, digging foundations and trenches, drilling wells, paving roads, and moving soil safely and efficiently.

The U.S. military uses diesel fuel in tanks and trucks because diesel fuel is less flammable and less explosive than other fuels. Diesel engines are also less likely to stall than gasoline-fueled engines.

Diesel fuel is also used in diesel engine generators to generate electricity. Many industrial facilities, large buildings, institutional facilities, hospitals, and electric utilities have diesel generators for backup and emergency power supply. Most remote villages in Alaska use diesel generators as the primary source of electricity.

A photograph of a dirt scooper and loader putting dirt into a dumptruck at a construction site.

A dirt scooper and loader loading dirt into a dump truck

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

A photograph of a diesel-fueled electricity generators in the village of Tulaksak, Alaska.

Diesel engine generators in Tulaksak, Alaska

Source: Alaska Center for Energy and Power

Last updated: June 12, 2019