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Engine Emissions and the Auto Industry


By Bob Panora

Environmental and health concerns drive the need for emissions standards and controls.  Despite advancements in solutions for cleaner energy, manufacturers of engines – from stationary to automotive – have historically failed at meeting the mandated guidelines over time and under varying operating conditions. The most recent example of this is “dieselgate,” the term the media coined to describe Volkswagen’s years of cheating on its emissions testing.

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulators become more stringent with standards testing, manufacturers must adopt viable solutions that meet regulation or else risk hefty fines, negative publicity and plummeting revenue numbers.

Lessons learned from the stationary engine market

Issues with emissions-control compliance for stationary engines first came to light in 2006, when regulators in Southern California conducted unannounced testing of stationary, spark-ignited internal combustion engines and engine-driven equipment.   The results were shocking: 56 percent of the engines from the nine manufacturers selected at random were non-compliant.  What was even more concerning was the level of pollutants: Nitrogen oxides (NOx) were over the limit by 937 percent and carbon monoxide (CO) was over the limit by 1,780 percent.  This hit the industry hard – emissions standards were tightened and temporarily halted the California market for industrial engines.

To address the situation, key stakeholders, including the California Energy Commission and SoCal Gas Co., along with some manufacturers, helped fund R&D for technology to achieve robust compliance with the new emissions standards.  The problem with rich-burn natural gas engines is that, when using a three-way catalyst (which everyone does), it is practically impossible to find the precise air-fuel ratio to eliminate both NOx and CO simultaneously. Typical solutions must favor just one over the other.

Since changing the mechanical controls of the engines would be too expensive and invasive, my company, Tecogen, decided to take a closer look at the chemistry of the emissions instead. The company discovered that by simply separating the three-way catalytic reaction into two separate and distinct reactions, it could obtain both very low NOx and very low CO at the same time, without interfering with engine performance.

Thus Tecogen’s Ultera ultra-clean emissions-control technology was formally developed. Ultera has since been successfully tested on a variety of diverse natural gas engines, and in each scenario has proven to consistently reduce the emissions of pollutants contributing to smog (CO and NOx) to near zero levels, on par with those emissions produced by super clean fuel cells. Tecogen engine-driven products are the only stationary natural gas fueled engines that have been permitted to operate in Southern California under the new strict air quality standards.

The automotive engine market

What about emissions-control for auto engines?  In addition to Volkswagen’s non-compliance, a report from the Guardian, based on data from Emissions Analytics, showed that diesel cars made by Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Mazda and Mitsubishi emit far more NOx and carbon monoxide in real-life usage than they do in tests.  And what about gasoline-powered vehicles?  Environmental groups claim that certification tests may understate the true on-road emissions of gasoline-powered automobiles operating under real-world conditions.

Given the above, there’s no question that automakers will increasingly feel pressure from government agencies charged with enforcing emissions standards.  Emissions technology needs to improve -- and it has to happen fast before the industry, not to mention the environment, takes a giant step backward.

In the Volkswagen case, EPA rules stipulate a maximum fine of $37,000 per affected car, and employees found to be involved could face up to 10 years in prison. Many car companies would crumble if faced with Volkswagen’s uphill battle.

A potential solution

Learning from its experience in the stationary engine market, Tecogen is exploring how it can apply its patented emissions-control technology to help the transportation industry. The company believes the chemistry will translate effectively for any engine platform that utilizes a rich-burn, spark-ignited internal combustion engine and a conventional catalyst after-treatment system.

Late last year, Tecogen formed a joint venture company, Ultra Emissions Technologies Ltd., with a group of European strategic investors to advance the technology.  AVL North America, the leader in the global vehicle testing and verification space, is in the process of performing testing and validation of the Ultera technology for automotive applications.  This non-invasive technology could be the cost-effective answer for auto manufacturers that have come under scrutiny for not meeting current emissions standards – let alone even stricter standards that are slated to take effect beginning in 2017.

The emission of pollutants into the environment has always been an issue, but thanks to California regulators, the EPA and high-profile cases such as Volkswagen’s, it has become a recognized problem among a broader audience.

As more and more cars are added to the world and air quality-related illnesses (like asthma) continue to increase in emerging markets like India and China, the problem of emissions control will only take on more urgency.  Adhering to strict regulations is changing the manufacturing industry, which now has to re-allocate funds to R&D to explore the problem.  Thanks to forward-thinking organizations committed to clean-energy solutions, I’m confident that we’ll find a solution for automakers that will enable them to return to business as usual – manufacturing the cars of the future.

Bob Panora has served as president and COO of Tecogen, Inc since 2000. He had been General Manager of Tecogen's Product Group since 1990 and Manger of Product Development, Engineering Manager, and Operations Manager of the Company since 1984. Over his 27-year tenure with the company, he has been responsible for sales and marketing, engineering, service, and manufacturing. 

3p Contributor

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