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Volvo Plans to Equip New Sedan With Ozone-Eating Technology

August 27, 1998|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — The Invasion of the Smog Eaters is about to debut.

No, it's not the latest sci-fi flick from Hollywood. It's the introduction of a low-cost automotive catalyst system that, when applied to a vehicle's radiator, destroys ozone with which it comes in contact.

Volvo this spring will become the first auto maker to use the catalyst system, introducing it on the top-line 1999 S80 sedan. The Swedish auto maker plans to install smog-eating radiators in other models in the near future.

It is an unexpected revival for a technology given up for dead just two years ago. Ford Motor Co. rejected the smog-eating radiator in 1996 because the environmental effects appeared minuscule in road tests.

Questions still abound about the technology's efficacy, but the California Air Resources Board is taking it so seriously that it may offer emissions credits to auto makers that equip cars with the ozone-zapping system.

The new technology was developed by Engelhard Corp., the Iselin, N.J.-based company that in 1976 created the three-way catalytic converter used on most cars today to reduce tailpipe emissions.

The latest advance involves applying a base-metal catalyst coating to a vehicle's radiator. As air passes over the radiator, ozone is converted into oxygen, thus cleaning the atmosphere.

At ground level, ozone is the main component of smog and contributes to a number of respiratory maladies. Low-level ozone is produced when tailpipe emissions--hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides--react in the presence of sunlight.

Volvo and Engelhard, which calls its catalyst system PremAir, say the technology destroys about 75% of the ozone that flows over the vehicle's treated radiator.

While it is difficult to gauge the technology's emissions impact, Engelhard and Volvo claim it can offset the hydrocarbons emitted by a clean-burning vehicle by 25% to 50%. The system should last 100,000 miles and cost less than $50, the companies say.

"It's a relatively low-cost technology," said Goran Wirmark, senior emissions engineer for Volvo, in a telephone interview from Goteborg, Sweden.

Volvo is introducing the new five-seat S80 sedan this fall but will not offer the smog-eating feature until next spring. Long known for safety features, Volvo hopes the new catalyst system will help it build a green image. It expects to sell about 100,000 S80s a year, including 25,000 in the United States, where the car will retail for about $40,000.

Engelhard, the world's top auto catalyst maker with 1997 revenue of $3.6 billion, developed the smog-eating radiator from a system it uses to destroy ozone in passenger cabins of wide-body jets. A similar system is also being tested on stationary ozone-producing sources, such as air-conditioning units.

The company began promoting the auto-radiator system in 1995. At the time, Chief Executive Orin Smith said the technology had the potential to generate as much revenue as its traditional auto-catalyst business.

The statement pushed up Engelhard's stock as well as the price of platinum, the precious metal then used in the catalyst coating. Euphoria also increased when Ford announced its test program in June 1996. The Securities and Exchange Commission later launched an investigation of eight Engelhard executives who sold stock during the price run-up. No charges were ever filed, and it could not be determined if the probe is still active.

Terry Bresnihan, a Ford spokesman, said the company declined to pursue the smog-eating technology because the environmental improvements were barely measurable.

"While the process worked in practical terms, our assessment was it would have negligible impact on the environment," Bresnihan said, adding that he was unaware of any new developments that would cause Ford to change course.

Terry Poles, director of new ventures for Engelhard, argues that today's cars have become so clean that new technologies that can provide small gains in net emissions are more important than ever.

Although the radiator technology is not the "silver bullet" that will solve the smog problem, he said, it's another tool for auto makers to use in trimming overall emissions.

"There is no question it can offset a significant portion of the ozone from the tailpipe," Poles said.

Engelhard is showing the smog-eating technology to other auto makers, which it declined to identify, and is hopeful they will follow Volvo's lead.

The technology's acceptance might well rest on regulatory action. Both the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have shown interest in the technology. Next month, the California board is expected to decide whether auto makers can get hydrocarbon credits for using the smog-eating technology.

Environmentalists believe the ozone-destroying technology has some benefits, but more so in stationary rather than auto applications.

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