Firing Up Catalytic Converters, Fast

THE FIRST MINUTE OR TWO OF MOST CAR TRIPS PRODUCES more pollution than all the rest of the drive. That's because the catalytic converter must be frying-hot to work properly. Companies have developed ways to get the converter to "light off" faster. But they aren't effective with engines bigger than four cylinders.

Ergenics Inc. in Ringwood, N.J., thinks it has a solution: a chemical-reaction heater that needs just four seconds to heat the front of a catalytic converter to 350C. It has two parts. Outside the tailpipe is a bottle of metal-hydride powder--granules saturated with hydrogen. In the tailpipe, a tube contains a secret alloy. When the engine starts, a valve opens and hydrogen gushes out of the powder and into the tailpipe, triggering the heat-giving reaction. Later, hot exhaust gas drives the hydrogen back into the powder.

Ergenics says independent tests show a car equipped with its Hydride Cold Start Heater can meet California's Ultra Low Emission Vehicle standard. President David H. DaCosta is seeking licensees and figures the heaters could sell in volume for about $150 apiece.