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Cleaning Up Cold Starts

The first few minutes after a car is started is the hardest – on both the car and the environment. Run a car engine for half an hour, and 80 per cent of its hydrocarbon emissions will be spewed out in the first two minutes, while the engine is cold and running inefficiently.

Car engines can only burn gas once it has been vaporized. But much of the fuel drawn into a cold engine remains as a liquid and is emitted from the exhaust without being burnt. This unburned fuel reacts with nitrogen oxides to create ozone, one of the major components of smog.

Recent research has found a way to reduce the amount of pollution emitted by a cold engine. The researchers have developed a distillation device that uses heat from the car's engine when it’s running to separate out the five per cent of the fuel made of the smallest, most easily vaporized hydrocarbon molecules. This is stored in a separate reservoir to be used the next time the engine is started.

Since most of the fuel obtained in this way can vaporized by even a cold engine, it slashes the amount of unburned hydrocarbons emitted during the first few minutes the car is running by more than 50 per cent. The distillation device that separates out the easily vaporized fuel and stores it weighs 2.5 kilograms.

The device was designed and patented by engineers at the University of Texas in Austin and the Ford Motor Company. "The engine will behave as if it's fully warmed up, even when it isn't," says Rudy Stanglmaier, one of the inventors at UT's Southwest Research Institute. The device will move from the laboratory stage to field tests this year when Ford installs it in a Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicle.