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Cleaning Up Combustion?

Oxonica cuts diesel consumption but runs into nanotech’s environmental quandary.
August 28, 2006

A University of Oxford spinoff is securing deals in Europe and Asia for a technology that makes better use of today’s diesel engines and fuels. Oxonica PLC claims that by facilitating combustion, its nanoparticle fuel additive boosts fuel efficiency an average of 5 percent and cuts soot emissions by as much as 15 percent.

CEO Kevin Matthews says diesel fuel spiked with Oxonica’s nanoparticle catalyst burns longer, boosting fuel efficiency and reducing tailpipe pollution. (Credit: Oxonica)

Last week, Oxonica announced its biggest deal yet: an additives-supply contract with Petrol Ofisi A.S., Turkey’s largest fuel distributor, worth $12.7 million this year. The resulting fuel savings could equal 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, according to Oxonica CEO Kevin Matthews. Ironically, a new set of environmental concerns around nanotechnology represent a serious hurdle to widespread acceptance of Oxonica’s technology.

Oxonica’s Envirox fuel-efficiency enhancer uses cerium oxide as a catalyst. This metal is one of several used in catalytic converters to reduce the amount of air pollution in engine exhaust. Cerium usually plays a supporting role to platinum, which is a more active catalyst but also more expensive. Fashioning cerium oxide into nanoparticles just 5 to 25 nanometers in diameter has given Oxonica two advantages: it has turned the cheaper metal into a highly active catalyst and produced it in a form that can be blended directly into the fuel.

Size matters, because a catalyst’s activity is a function of its surface area, and the total surface area in a mass of particles rises exponentially as the mass of the individual particles decreases. As a result, only a small amount of the product is required; Envirox is blended into diesel fuel at a ratio of just 5 parts per million.

Matthews, an Oxford-trained chemist, says the cerium oxide nanoparticles promote a burn that’s more evenly spread and longer lived. In a diesel engine, combustion occurs when the fuel injected into a cylinder is compressed. By spreading out the burn, the fuel-borne catalyst reduces the force exerted at the start of the burn, when the piston is still pushing into the cylinder–a moment when the diesel engine is fighting itself. “What you’re getting is a transferal of the burn, so more of it occurs on the positive end of the cycle,” says Matthews. Later in the cycle, the particles may make a noncatalytic contribution: by decomposing under the heat and pressure of combustion, the cerium oxide particles release some of their oxygen to feed the flame, combusting residual pockets of fuel.

Scott Anderson, professor of physical and analytical chemistry at the University of Utah, calls Oxonica’s fuel-borne catalyst a “workable” idea, based on his own experience testing cerium oxide nanoparticles as catalysts for military jet fuel. “It’s well known to be a combustion catalyst. If you put enough of it in, it will certainly increase the combustion rate and that should increase the combustion efficiency,” says Anderson.

Oxonica addressed skepticism among buyers by convincing Perth, U.K.-based Stagecoach Group, operator of 7,000 buses, to give Envirox a try. In 2003 and 2004, Stagecoach and Oxonica tested the additive in 1,000 buses in the U.K., and tracked another 500 as controls. Stagecoach reports that, overall, the test buses used 5 percent less fuel and that the fuel savings more than paid for the additive. By the end of 2004, Stagecoach implemented Envirox across the U.K., and last summer it bought shares when Oxonica went public.

Oxonica would like to see its additive in U.S. bus fleets as well, but the EPA is concerned that cerium oxide nanoparticles coming out the tailpipe could pose a health threat. While registering a new gas additive with EPA is usually a six-month process, Oxonica has already waited a year; Matthews says he accepts that the company may still have as much as two years to go.

While the toxicity of cerium oxide in bulk form is comparable to table salt, in nanoparticle form it could carry much greater risk–especially when inhaled. Whereas larger particles are cleared by the lungs, studies have shown that some types of nanoparticles less than 100 nanometers in diameter can infiltrate the tissues lining the lung. Nanoparticles can end up in the blood stream, inside cells, and even, in some cases, inside the nuclei of cells where chromosomes reside. The EPA is concerned that while vehicles burning Envirox-treated diesel might produce less soot, they may also produce a new set of particles dangerous to humans.

Matthews says Oxonica’s research shows that combustion of Envirox-treated diesel does not alter the size distribution of particulate pollution, meaning that the proportion of smaller particles remains unchanged. And he says the company’s toxicity studies on so-called synthetic lungs turned up no signs of trouble.

Anderson says the problem for Oxonica may be the devil that we don’t know. For one thing, says Anderson, nanoparticles in exhaust tend to be hard to measure with conventional optical detection techniques. “They are so small they don’t scatter light effectively,” says Anderson. Also, scientific understanding of the health effects of nanoparticles is at a nascent stage and EPA is still trying to figure out how to regulate them. “They’re just getting to the point of starting to worry about small micron-sized particles,” says Anderson. “I don’t think they have any clue about how they’re going to regulate much smaller particles.”

The EPA has held meetings to discuss how to deal with nanoparticles and last December issued a white paper on the topic, which has subsequently undergone peer review. But a planned voluntary reporting program to encourage closer examination of nanoscale products has yet to materialize. The EPA may develop policy pragmatically, as it considers new nanotech applications. In fact, Julia Moore, deputy director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (a Washington, DC, think tank) says Oxonica’s Envirox may prove a crucial “test case” of how the EPA will handle nanotech.

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