Smart Sensors for the Gas Tank

Modern cars are crammed with computers that measure and respond to everything from brake pressure to luxury features. Soon they will also come with a minicomputer than can sniff the contents of gasoline and tell the engine how to react.

The new technology, which relies on a $25 sensor, promises to improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution. It also shows how many of the sensors and connected computers that used to be found only in industrial operations are making their way into everyday things.

“Many people don’t realize that fuel is not the same every 10 miles you go,” said Alain Lunati, a former petroleum executive who now heads SP3H, a startup in Aix-en-Provence, France.

As Lunati explained in a recent phone interview, the gas we buy varies from station to station due to such factors as the refinery source or additives that gas retailers include in the fuel blend.

The difference in gasoline matters because car engines are built and calibrated around one specific gas blend that varies with each car model. Optimal engine performance occurs when the car uses the exact same gasoline that the automaker did. In reality, however, a driver has little hope of finding that same fuel when it’s time to fill the tank.

“The engine is only calibrated with one fuel, but there are an infinite number of fuels,” said Lunati. “It’s statistically impossible to find the fuel that is calibrated with your engine.”

The fact that you’re not using the same fuel as the manufacturer doesn’t mean, of course, that you’re harming your vehicle. Your car is doing just fine, since engines are built to ingest a standardized range of fuel variations and gas stations ensure that what they sell falls within this range. (And there’s no need to buy that premium gas, by the way.)

The issue, instead, is a question of waste. According to Lunati, cars’ use of nonoptimal fuel means a decline in fuel efficiency of up to 5 percent and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 20 percent.

Those numbers are not jaw-dropping for an individual car. But what if this inefficiency could be reduced across a nation’s entire vehicle fleet?

When he worked at petrol giant BP, Lunati said he used industrial sensors that could detect the precise molecular composition of fuel. The sensors, which are also used in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, stood 3 feet high and cost more than $3 million apiece—hardly a practical option to strap onto a Toyota Camry or Ford Focus.

Now, though, SP3H is producing a miniversion of the sensors for cars that uses near-infrared technology to acquire a “fuel fingerprint” of whatever is in the tank. This information can then be relayed to the car’s central computer system, which can, in turn, direct the engine to adjust the fuel injection, consumption, and treatment process.

The system, which can be applied to gasoline, diesel, or any other type of fuel, is not part of the auto manufacturing process yet, but Lunati said it soon will be.

“The system is already there. Cars now have around 60 computers, including one for engine optimization that uses 10 parameters that adjust in real time to outside temp, the temperature of engine, pressure, altitude, and more.”

He added that SP3H already has deals with carmakers around the world and is in talks with one of America’s two auto giants to license the patented technology. SP3H’s business plan calls for the car companies and parts makers to manufacture and and integrate the sensor as they see fit, and the company expects test models to be on the road by next year.

An SP3H prototype envisions the sensor to be about 3 inches long, to weigh a few hundred grams, and to cost about $25.

If SP3H succeeds, the result will be a new low-cost way to monitor fuel quality on the road and in real time. This could yield an immediate reduction in CO2 from vehicles, especially if more countries also adopt the start-stop technology that is taking off in Europe.

In such places as China and Brazil, where SP3H plans to road-test them first, the sensors could make an additional difference. According to Lunati, the fuel quality in such countries varies to a much greater extent from gas station to gas station than it does in the U.S. or Europe—and the fuel product from some unethical sellers is so bad it can kill engines. The minisensors could make it easy to find out who is selling bad or dirty fuel, to the benefit of both motorists and the air.

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