Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – A 4-year-old Canadian upstart says it has the answer to meeting tough nitrogen-oxide diesel-emissions standards on the books for 2010 – without having to resort to problematic urea-based selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems.

NxtGen Emission Controls Inc., which is based in Burnaby, BC, Canada, and in the process of setting up manufacturing, application engineering and sales operations in nearby Wixom, MI, says its emissions system replaces both SCR technology used to control NOx and other systems employed to cleanse clogged diesel particulate filters with a single generator that creates syngas from diesel fuel already onboard.

The syngas generator, about the size of a Coke bottle, produces a partial oxidation reaction that converts diesel fuel, mixed with about 2% of the airflow from the exhaust manifold, into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The gas is pumped into the particulate filter and lean-NOx trap (LNT) to actively regenerate them.

Currently, manufacturers have resorted to injecting diesel fuel directly into particulate filters to burn off accumulated particulates, but NxtGen officials say the hydrogen produced via their device does a more thorough job, is more controllable and operates at lower temperatures.

Using the NxtGen system to purge the LNT would allow auto makers and truck engine builders to dodge use of complex SCR technology, which injects urea from a reservoir into the exhaust stream to control NOx.

Audi AG, Volkswagen AG, Mercedes-Benz, BMW AG, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC all are planning to introduce light-duty diesels with SCR systems in order to meet U.S. 2010 NOx requirements. Honda Motor Co. Ltd. will introduce a diesel that meets the standard without urea. Its system creates its own ammonia, using it to converts NOx stored in the catalyst into harmless nitrogen and water during normal engine operation.

The NxtGen generator is non-catalytic, the upstart developer says, so there are no costly precious metals or exotic materials used in its construction.

“Syngas technology is not new,” CEO Jeremy W. Holt says. “(But) the way of generating syngas has been the kind of holy grail to go after. (Other) people have pursued syngas generators that are catalytic – they’re out there. But we seem to be the last man standing with a (practical) solution.”

Holt, who came to NxtGen in November from engineering specialists Ricardo plc and is charged with commercializing the technology, admits the fledgling supplier is late to the party, with several auto makers already too far down the road with NOx-reducing SCR systems to switch paths before 2010.

“If we had been where we are today two years ago, I don’t think we would have seen SCR,” he says. “And we’re accelerating now our commercialization to allow that to happen.

“Everyone’s been working on multiple streams of technology, so you never really know what’s going to happen until the last minute,” he adds. “We still think there’s an open door, even if it’s a year or two after 2010.

“It’s going to be an interesting introduction, because I don’t think urea is going to go down well (with) the consumer.”

A cost comparison is difficult, Holt says, because there are so many components to today’s SCR systems, and every auto maker has different costs associated with employing the technology. But he is confident the NxtGen system is “cost viable.”

The biggest advantage of the technology is elimination of onboard urea tanks that need to be replenished. Most urea-SCR systems call for refills every 10,000 miles (16,093 km) or so. That prospect has hung up the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which still hasn’t delivered guidance to manufacturers on what will be required to ensure cars on the road remain stocked with the fluid and in compliance with emissions regulations.

That could present an opening for NxtGen’s syngas system, in effect, to become the regulator’s technology of choice.

Currently, the EPA is evaluating the NxtGen technology for approval in retrofitting medium- and heavy-duty commercial trucks already on the road. The supplier now has units undergoing fleet testing, and an EPA certification ruling is expected late this year or early in 2009.

“We’re on the agenda with (the EPA), so they’re going to get familiar with the technology,” Holt says of potential for a positive commercial boost from the regulatory agency. “We’re going to try and sell all the influencers. Our mission right now is to get the message out.”

In addition to eliminating urea, the NxtGen system allows particulate filters and LNTs to be downsized and contain fewer precious metals, reducing costs. And the syngas generator can be located almost anywhere, allowing packaging flexibility. In an original-equipment installation, the unit would be coupled with existing powertrain controllers, although in a retrofit separate electronics are required.

Holt says it is difficult to pinpoint the size of the potential market for the syngas system.

“I think it could be huge,” he says. “No one is going to sell a diesel engine that isn’t clean by the end of the decade.”

NxtGen is targeting business worldwide, he says, adding it has drawn interest from U.S., European and Asian auto makers, though no OEs are testing the technology yet.

“We’re talking to potential customers globally,” confirms Erik Johannes, vice president-technology and one of NxtGen’s founding fathers. “And what they like is that it can be used for a lot of different applications.”

Johannes delivered a technical paper on the technology at the SAE World Congress here, noting the onboard generator could be used to inject hydrogen upstream of the fuel-delivery process to improve combustion or supply the gas to power a small fuel cell for accessory operation in commercial vehicles.

Initial business may lean toward the medium-duty truck market, but Holt says light-vehicle applications, particularly in the U.S. fullsize pickup truck segment, could follow quickly.

The market could be “everything from 2.0L diesel engines (in Europe and Asia) to a huge marine diesel engine – and everything in between,” he says. “(But) most of the (initial) volume is in that pickup truck sector and emerging SUV and car sector.”

NxtGen’s converted 10,000-sq.-ft. (929 sq.-m) facility in Wixom will be open next month. Prototype and possibly low-volume output for the retrofit market should begin by the third quarter, with higher-volume production as early as the fourth quarter.

The Wixom plant will be limited to about 20,000 units annually. NxtGen envisions adding higher-capacity facilities down the road, but Holt declines to speculate on possible locations.

Wixom was chosen in part for its proximity to NxtGen’s potential U.S. customer base.

“Our product, especially in low volume, is not a huge labor-cost issue that we need to go to Mexico,” Holt says. “We wanted the skilled workers that were available in Michigan and the technologies that we could access from that space. There are a lot of suppliers that we will need to access and are available locally. So it was good choice for us.”

The facility is expected to employ about 50 people by mid-2009, including manufacturing workers and applications engineers. Currently, NxtGen employs about 25 people, including three in Michigan.

It would take two years, “maybe less,” Holt says, for NxtGen to tool up and begin volume production for an OE.

Holt acknowledges there are others with syngas-based systems and concepts, but claims NxtGen is a step ahead.

“There are other people who are still experimenting in the space, but they’re not as advanced commercially as we are,” he says. “Our system works quickly – it’s up to speed within 15 seconds. It’s compact. It’s stable. Its performance doesn’t degenerate over time because of catalyst poisoning, because there aren’t any (catalysts). So we think it’s a robust solution.”

Adds Johannes: “When we started this three years ago and came to talk to people, there was no evangelizing required. They would say, ‘We love it; we agree with you.’ The question was, ‘Do you have one?’”

After four years in development, NxtGen says it finally has an answer.

dzoia@wardsauto.com