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Cleaning Up Car Pollution

New device may drastically cut hydrocarbon and other emissions

SATURDAY, May 26, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- American researchers have developed a new technology that they say could cut vehicle hydrocarbon emissions in half and reduce overall toxin emissions in cars by 80 percent.

The device, called the "on-board distillation system," has been patented jointly by engineers at the University of Texas at Austin College of Engineering and the Ford Motor Company.

Much of the pollution created by your car occurs when you start your engine in cold or temperate weather. When you turn the key in the ignition, only about 20 percent of the gasoline injected into the engine's intake valves vaporizes and powers the engine, says Ronald Matthews, co-inventor of the system and a UT Austin professor of mechanical engineering.

The rest of the fuel forms a puddle in the intake manifold and evaporates once the engine gets warm. That results in high levels of hydrocarbons emitted from the tailpipe. Those hydrocarbons react with nitrogen oxide and sunlight to create ozone, one of the major components of smog, Matthews says.

The "on-board distillation system" acts like a mini-refinery under the hood of your car. It separates the 5 percent of the most volatile and easily vaporized molecules of gasoline from the rest of the molecules. Those volatile molecules, which burn much more readily, are then stored in a reservoir and used when you start the car's engine, Matthews says.

That avoids inefficient fuel-burning normally associated with engine starts.

The system weighs a little less than 5 pounds and consists of four pieces and attachments installed in different areas of the engine. Most people looking at an engine wouldn't even notice the system, Matthews says.

He and his colleagues are now testing the system on a vehicle donated by Ford, and that process will be completed at the end of summer 2002.

"We think there may be a fuel economy benefit to it as well, but we haven't demonstrated that yet," Matthews says.

The test results will be given to Ford, which will then decide whether to put the device into production. Matthews estimates the installed cost of a "on-board distillation system" could be $60 per unit.

He says he's had a number of calls from fuel-systems manufacturers. So even if Ford decides not to put the system into production, one of these other manufacturers may market the device.

This is potentially a major advance in reducing vehicle pollution, says co-inventor Wen Dai, a technical specialist at Ford. "We're very close in getting this concept ready, but there's still work to be done," he adds.

What To Do

Maintaining your car helps you protect your investment, keep your car running better, improve your gas mileage -- and also fight smog. To learn more, visit this U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site.

And remember, one of the best ways to reduce car-related air pollution is to leave your car at home and walk, cycle or take public transit. For more about that, visit the Coalition for Alternative Transportation.

For more HealthDay stories on pollution, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ronald Matthews, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, College of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin; Wen Dai, Ph.D., technical specialist, Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, Mich.
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