Ford Motor Co. and Engelhard Corp. have begun a nine-month test program for their new, jointly developed "PremAir" automotive catalyst system that the companies think will take pollution control beyond today's exhaust treatment schemes.

The PremAir system employs a vehicle's radiator and air conditioning condenser -- coated with a special catalytic material -- to clean ground-level, smog-producing ozone ([O.sub.3]). As air passes over the catalyst-treated components as the vehicle is driven (or parked with the cooling fan running), that nasty ozone is converted into pure oxygen ([O.sub.2]).

Ford and Engelhard say they'll have running prototypes fitted with PremAir ready by March. The nine-month program, says Louis R. Ross, Ford vice chairman and chief technical officer, is targeted mainly at developing a working system and to "quantify the benefits."

The PremAir program will take place in nine different countries, including Canada, Japan, Brazil, the U.K. and Australia, says Mr. Ross. A total of 30 vehicles -- mostly Ford Contours and Mercury Mystiques -- will be used to evaluate how extreme environmental conditions affect the catalytic coating and the radiator's performance and to gather data on how effectively various permutations of the system perform.

Haren Gandhi, head of Ford's research and development laboratories, says the underlying technology involved with the PremAir system is simple. He says there are 10 to 12 reactions that take place in a common automotive exhaust catalytic converter, but only one reaction (converting smog-making [O.sub.3] into [O.sub.2]) that takes place in the PremAir system.

In a demonstration of PremAir, the companies set up an ozone-producing machine at the front of a PremAir-equipped Mercury Mystique. With sensors monitoring ozone levels both before and after the ozone-heavy air passed over the catalyst-coated radiator, figures showed that the system removed in excess of 90% of the ozone.

Mr. Ross says PremAir-equipped vehicles may qualify as extremely low-emitting vehicles under California emissions standards that are due to be, or are already, in effect.

He says that the cost of the system -- preliminarily slated between $500 and $1,000 per vehicle -- could prove to be less than that of vehicles equipped with proposed technology required to meet extremely strict future emissions standards.

Both Mr. Ross and Engelhard Chairman and Chief Executive Orin R. Smith say it is too early to tell how PremAir technology may affect future vehicles' emissions "status." Mr. Ross says that regulators such as the Calfornia Air Resources Board (CARB) are working closely with Ford and Engelhard to study air-quality modeling data and how effectively the PremAir system can be expected to work.

Engelhard's Mr. Smith says "the data that comes out of this program will be shared at an appropriate time" with other automakers and industry concerns.

Ford and Engelhard are encouraged by preliminary analysis of PremAir and do not view the technology as pie-in-the-sky. Mr. Smith says he expects the PremAir system to be available on production vehicles "well before the year 2000."

"Autos have been viewed (up to now) as pollution generators, and they'll be viewed as pollution eaters as time goes on," says Mr. Ross.