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Study Backs Low-Emission Gas Engines

Automobiles: Early results show cars meet state's strict standards. But environmentalists say hybrids and fuel cells are the best solution.

September 04, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a significant boost to the oft-maligned internal combustion engine, researchers at UC Riverside have found that new low-emission vehicles with gasoline engines are as clean as gas-electric hybrids and can meet or beat the state's strictest emissions standards.

The findings, to be announced today, are sure to be cheered by auto makers, which have invested billions of dollars in internal combustion engine development. They will be less pleasing to environmental groups that have been fighting for years for a replacement for the conventional, hydrocarbon-burning auto engine.

The university's preliminary findings are based on two years of study of just a few low-emission vehicles using California's cleaner-burning gasoline. The program, funded by a small group of government agencies and auto and fuel industry companies, will wrap up over the next year with a broader study using a variety of existing cars and light trucks with low-emission, ultra-low-emission and super-ultra-low-emission vehicle ratings.

But UCR researcher Jim Lentz said early results show the new generation of low-emission internal combustion engines already is capable of competing with other technologies in the drive to reduce auto emissions.

Tailpipe emissions from the new engines, using gasoline formulated to California's tough standards, often are cleaner than the ambient air on freeways, Lentz said.

"It is a miracle for those of us who remember the 1970s, when we talked about emission measurements in terms like 10 grams per mile and listened to the auto companies tell us it was impossible to make their cars do any better," he said. "Now we are measuring in the hundredths or even thousandths of a gram per mile."

The study, being conducted by UCR's Center for Environmental Research and Technology, shows "startling performance with gasoline engines," said Ben Knight, vice president of automobile engineering at Honda Research & Development Americas.

Torrance-based Honda Motor America, a leader in alternative engine technologies, is a co-sponsor of the study, along with ChevronTexaco Corp., a group of emissions control equipment manufacturers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board.

"We still have work to do on fuel economy and other issues" related to emission of gases that contribute to global warming, "but this shows that we are taking auto emissions out of the [smog] equation," Knight said. "The impossible is becoming a reality," he said, and gasoline engines "are a technology worth continued investment."

The study might show that, said Jason Marks, a Berkeley-based spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, "but while cleaner gas engines are vital to air quality now, ultimately we must move beyond combustion engines."

Marks also said the study needs the coming year's results--with a multitude of vehicles being tested--before meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

Lentz acknowledged that the study's numbers are based on results from just a few vehicles, but he said he is confident the next year of testing will confirm them. "And if the numbers do hold up, it will further support the idea that Los Angeles can meet the 2010 federal, and state, air quality standards," he said.

The state standards would see low-emission vehicles emitting less than 0.05 grams per mile of hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen, both key air pollutants, said Alan Lloyd, chairman of the California Air Resources Board.

The UCR study's interim results show that the only two super-ultra-low-emission vehicles available in California today--the Nissan Sentra CA and specially equipped Honda Accords--exceed that standard, and that vehicles with low-emission-rated engines are close. Researchers wouldn't identify the makes or models used, citing concern that the study could be misconstrued as an endorsement of a particular brand.

Kate Simmons, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, said that the study seems to be a step in the right direction and that the club believes better technology will help address both air pollution and global warming. "But ultimately, fuel cells and hybrids are the best answer," she said.

*

Passing Tests

``New-technology'' gasoline engines using fuel formulated for California standards can meet or beat state emissions limits for low-emission vehicles (LEV), ultra-low-emission vehicles (ULEV) and the new 2004 model year standard for super-ultra-low-emission vehicles (SULEV), according to a study by UC Riverside researchers.

California emissions standard UCR test results (grams per mile) (grams per mile)

Pollutant LEV ULEV SULEV LEV ULEV SULEV

Non-methane organic gases 0.090 0.055 0.010 0.0608 0.0096 0.0101

Carbon Monoxide 4.20 2.10 1.00 0.8894 0.0886 0.2007

Oxides of nitrogen 0.30 0.30 0.02 0.0545 0.0267 0.0119

Source: Center for Environmental Research and Technology at UC Riverside

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