During most drives around town, cars typically emit the the most pollution in the first couple of minutes. That's because the gasoline isn't warm enough to vaporize properly. As a result, up to 80% of the fuel pumped into the engine is spit out as unburned hydrocarbon particles. But a miniature oil refinery under the hood could change that.
Developed by four engineers at Ford Motor Co., the University of Texas, and Southwest Research Institute, a new onboard distillation system "cracks" liquid gasoline to harvest the lighter molecules that vaporize easily, then salts them away in a separate minitank for use in starting the car. This dual-fuel approach could slash auto emissions by 50% or more, says team leader Ronald D. Matthews, a professor of mechanical engineering in Austin.
The next step: The mini-refinery system will be moved out of the university's lab and installed in a 2001 Lincoln Navigator sport-utility vehicle. Matthews expects it to take about 18 months to fine-tune the system for both performance and cost. The team hopes to trim the cost to $60 from roughly $400 now. If they pull it off, the patented technology will be offered to all carmakers.