Eco-gains Might Ride on Lightweight Car Parts

Eco-gains Might Ride on Lightweight Car Parts

Separate announcements on either side of the Atlantic this week could spell a cleaner, lighter future for the automobile.

In Brussels, the European Commission launched a project worth $4.5 million to develop a lightweight car that can travel 100 kilometers (62 miles) on one liter of diesel fuel.

In Dearborn, Mich., Visteon Corporation announced what it believes is an industry first -- a plastic fuel tank system designed to help vehicle manufacturers meet Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standards.

ZEV standards originate in California and are tougher than America's voluntary Low Emission Vehicle program. ZEV standards permit no tailpipe emissions which is achievable with fuel cell technology.

A fuel cell relies on chemistry, not combustion, to produce power. Inside the fuel cell, oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat.

Still, when fuel cell cars hit the market in 2004, not everyone will be able to drive one. For cars powered by traditional internal combustion engines, lightweight materials will help limit emissions and help save fuel.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, vehicles account for about 60% of total emissions of carbon monoxide in the United States, about 31% of nitrogen oxides, nearly 30% of volatile organic compounds, and about 8% of particulate matter.

Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds pose stubborn obstacles to improving air quality because they are the primary contributors to the formation of ground level ozone or smog.

Lightweight materials are the key to low fuel consumption and lower emissions in cars. The aim of the European Commission project is to produce the materials by 2004 for an ultra-lightweight version of Volkswagen's Lupo TDI.

The car would use low cost carbon composites, which will reduce the vehicle's weight by about 40%, improving fuel economy and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions drastically.

To reduce the high costs of developing new materials, the project aims to reduce the number of parts used to one-third of the more than 200 parts needed today.

Researchers say they hope that this will make the car cost effective for consumers -- the ultimate guarantee of success.

"This research project is a joint effort by the car industry, research laboratories and materials producers to give at least a partial answer to the question of Europe's dependence on oil and to reduce output of CO2," said Research Commissioner Phillipe Busquin.

The European Commission will put up half the money for the project, which is part of an overall strategy to make the use of cars, buses and trucks more sustainable and to reduce pollution of the atmosphere. Other research activity includes the development of smaller engines.

Improvements of up to 30% fuel economy can be expected from these new power trains, in particular those based on downsized gasoline and diesel engines and advanced combustion modes.

Visitors to the 2000 Paris Motor Show, which starts on Saturday, can see Visteon Corporation's contribution to reducing tailpipe emissions. The multinational automotive supply company's plastic fuel tank system integrates components inside the plastic tank, eliminating most of the external fuel system connections.

Visteon says the fuel tank system practically eliminates hydrocarbon emissions, allowing car manufacturers to meet Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV) standards. This was previously thought possible only by using a steel fuel tank, said Gary Mayo, director of environmental affairs for Visteon.

PZEV standards were created to give flexibility on ZEV standards. A manufacturer gets credit against the ZEV requirement for automobiles that meet PZEV requirements, which include practically eliminating hydrocarbon emissions from the fuel tank.

"Visteon's plastic fuel tank system offers our customers opportunities to meet these standards and produce vehicles that are more environmentally friendly," Mayo said.

Compared to a steel tank, the plastic fuel tank is easier to package, lighter for better fuel efficiency, cheaper for vehicle manufacturers and does not corrode, Mayo said.

On Monday, DaimlerChrysler Corporation announced it is testing plastics recycling technology that could help make the company's vehicles 95% recoverable within the next few years. Not only would the technology cut the cost of making new vehicles by millions of dollars each year, it also could reduce by one third the amount of automobile waste going into landfills.