Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – NxtGen Emission Controls Inc. is set to launch low-volume production of its syngas-based emissions systems late this year at its Wixom, MI, plant, the company’s top executive says.

The first units will be aimed at the commercial-vehicle retrofit market, with a volume of about 5,000 units expected next year, CEO Jeremy W. Holt says in an interview here at the SAE World Congress.

The facility has an annual capacity for about 25,000 units, and there’s room to double that if necessary. Seven people are employed at the Wixom operation now, which also houses NxtGen’s sales and application-engineering team, with about 50 workers expected if the plant reaches full volume.

The production launch will culminate a 5-year effort for the Canadian company to get its emissions-control technology on the market. In addition to the retrofit sector, NxtGen is targeting original equipment commercial-vehicle applications, the light-duty market and some ancillary opportunities for its syngas generation technology.

NxtGen’s retrofit system is designed to improve diesel-particulate trap performance by injecting syngas – a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, rather than pure diesel fuel – into the filter in order to burn off the particulates.

The syngas, which is created using the onboard diesel fuel, does a more thorough job in cleansing the filter and is more effective at temperatures up to 180º F (100º C) cooler.

Because it uses syngas, rather than pure diesel, it promises to be up to 30% more fuel efficient, and platinum content in emissions systems can be reduced 50%-60%, Holt says.

Currently, NxtGen is performing final testing as part of a validation effort for Environmental Protection Agency certification. It also is filing to meet the EPA’s emerging-technologies standards.

That would allow fleet operators retrofitting their vehicles with NxtGen technology to qualify for incentives. Similar bonuses are offered by the state of California, and NxtGen plans to file for certification with the California Air Resources Board, as well.

Holt says the improvement payouts can range as high as $15,000 per truck, enough to cover the full cost of NxtGen’s syngas system.

NxtGen expects to complete the EPA certification process by year’s end. In the meantime, it is producing evaluation units for potential fleet customers, and it has put “hundreds of hours” on its own test vehicle in operation in Vancouver.

“We’re very comfortable with the technology now and how it’s going to work,” Holt says.

OE applications in the commercial-vehicle market also are being sought by NxtGen, and it is looking beyond the U.S. for marketing opportunities.

“We’ve had interest on both the retrofit and OE side, which is encouraging,” Holt says, adding, “and it’s more international, too.”

For example, in the past year, NxtGen has added two Japanese investors to its fold, including an unnamed automotive manufacturer and Itochu Corp., a trading conglomerate.

NxtGen also believes it still has opportunities in the light-duty side of the business, but auto makers have been pulling back on diesel applications for pickup trucks and passenger cars in the U.S. as gas prices have eased and financial difficulties have reined in development for some.

“The light-duty side of the business has not gone really far...but it’s not to say (it) won’t progress,” Holt says. “The fact that we don’t have a coherent energy policy is creating these ups and downs.

“There’s an efficiency gain you can go after with diesel, and we should be all over that. But we’re not because of fuel prices.”

NxtGen’s LNT (lean nitrogen-oxide trap) system could replace selective catalytic reduction systems that use urea to control NOx emissions.

Holt contends it remains uncertain whether SCR systems, which require urea tanks to be replenished at regular service intervals, will catch on with the industry or whether they will prove too expensive and inconvenient for consumers.

“I think posturing (by some auto makers) continues,” he says. “(But) there’s a high degree of discomfort. It’s a huge risk, and I think options for beyond SCR are still being explored.

“While some companies have committed to it, I don’t think it’s the best solution. We’re getting much more confident in our ability to improve the performance of NOx traps, and we’re very viable in larger engine sizes than we were previously thought to be.”

NxtGen has been testing the LNT system on dynamometers and will retrofit into a demonstration truck for testing “shortly,” Holt says. But any OE applications likely are at least three years away.

Meanwhile, NxtGen believes there could be additional opportunities for its syngas generator ahead of the tailpipe as pressure for reducing carbon-dioxide levels continue to mount.

“We’ve come across, since last year, some values of syngas that could really address the (carbon-dioxide) agenda, as well as the emissions agenda,” Holt tells Ward’s.

“We’ve concentrated this company at launch on diesel aftertreatment systems. But syngas is really our core technology…so what else can you do with syngas?”

One of the possibilities is to inject the mixture ahead of the combustion process to improve efficiency and lower emissions.

Auto makers have been experimenting with gasoline homogenous-charge compression-ignition engines that would use compression, rather than spark, ignition under certain loads. But so far, engineers have been unable to expand the narrow operating band in which HCCI can be achieved using gasoline.

“We’re not the experts on it, but we’re now working in labs with our partners to see what we can do with syngas in this type of environment,” the CEO says. “We think we might be able to do something advantageous in terms of fuel economy.

“There’s a fair amount of work to be done yet, but there’s some potential for our technology.”

NxtGen is slightly behind its timetable for getting the retrofit business off the ground. A year ago, it predicted it would have units in production by the end of 2008.

“I thought we’d be further along in the verification process,” Holt admits. “But we took a little time out to make sure the product was designed for manufacturing and assembly and took some of the cost out.”

NxtGen is marketing its retrofit systems through Toronto-based aftermarket retailer Engine Control Systems Ltd. First production units likely will be aimed at medium-duty applications with engines in the 5L-9L range.

dzoia@wardsauto.com