TCS Daily

Tech Gains Show Clean Fuel Use -- Not the Fuels Themselves -- Is Key to Cutting Air Pollution

By Kenneth Green - June 7, 2001 12:00 AM

For decades, environmental regulators have focused on the environmental impacts of fuels, passing myriad regulations governing the import of fuels, the handling of fuels, the additives put into fuels, and so on. Grand schemes to move away from fossil fuels have led to programs that poured money into alternative fuels research, and at times, regulators have gone so far as to mandate the very nature of fuels they felt desirable. For example, California's Air Resources Board went so far as to mandate that a certain portion of the vehicle fleet run on electricity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called for so many different forms of gasoline that boutique markets have been created across the country, with shortages and price spikes as a result. Anyone who recalls Jimmy Carter's "synfuels" program will remember the millions of tax dollars poured down a hole of chasing new fuels, rather than trying to use existing fuels better.

Fortunately, the market is showing that there are superior alternatives to these approaches, in the form of new technologies unforeseen by environmental activists and regulators who have long argued that fossil fuels can never be used cleanly enough to meet environmental goals. Two examples in the news last month carry great promise for producing reductions in the level of ozone, a pollutant that poses a hazard to those with significant respiratory problems such as asthma or emphysema.

Cars are a major source of ozone pollution in many urban areas. On average, motor vehicles produce 49% of the emissions of a group of chemicals called nitrogen oxides that react with hydrocarbons (another type of pollutant) to form ozone in the presence of sunlight.

Since 1987, developments in diesel engine technology have reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by nearly 70 percent, which is no small feat. But early in May, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) rolled out a new technology that cuts nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel vehicles by an additional 90 percent. And they didn't switch fuels to do it. Rather, scientists at PNNL focused on the real problem, which isn't the fuel, it's the emissions. Building on the tremendous success of catalyst technology, the researchers not only made incredible strides in eliminating NOx emissions from diesel engines, they achieved similar success at removing fine particulate matter, or soot, another air pollutant capable of aggravating respiratory conditions.

A similar breakthrough for gasoline-powered, internal combustion engines was recently announced at the University of Texas, at Austin. There, researchers found a low cost way to trap the bursts of hydrocarbon pollution that cars emit at start up by 50 percent. Better still, the system was shown to cut total pollutant emissions by up to 80 percent. Like PNNL, the Texas researchers made their breakthrough by focusing on the right target. Rather than obsessing about the gasoline, they focused on the emissions a car puts out shortly after the engine starts. The Texas researchers designed a system that captures those volatile hydrocarbon emissions, but that's not all they did. Knowing that emissions of volatile gasoline components represents a loss of useful energy, the UT -- Austin researchers designed a way to capture the emissions and then use them to make a car start more efficiently. Costing only $60.00, the mini-refinery system weighs less than five pounds, and consists of four pieces that are so small most people would not even notice them when looking at a modified engine.

Regulators can (and will) claim some of the credit for these developments. If nothing else, existing emissions standards, and prospects of tighter standards helped create the impetus for research at places like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories and the University of Texas. While standard-setting may have produced some benefits, regulators should also admit that other efforts, such as attempting to pick winning technologies like electric cars or mandating fuel reformulations, have failed to produce a significant environmental benefit, while wasting resources that would have been far better used conducting research such as that discussed here.

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