If you've ever been caught in traffic behind a truck or a city bus, you know firsthand about the noxious black exhaust of diesel-powered engines. Diesel exhaust contains both nitrous oxide and particulate matter, two pollutants the U.S. EPA wants to reduce over the next few years. New technologies such as cleaner-burning diesel engines and pollution filters can help reduce these emissions, but at a price. A new low-emissions diesel fuel developed by a Cleveland company could reduce pollution from the first fill-up, but the EPA hasn't yet approved the fuel for use. 90.3's Karen Schaefer tells us why.
Karen Schaefer- It doesn't take a scientist to spot the pollution emitted every day by the millions of trucks and buses that travel the nation's highways. Black clouds of sooty exhaust belch from the back end of these local city buses, contributing to smog and the rising number of illnesses and deaths caused by air pollution.
In 1997, the U.S. EPA adopted new emissions standards for model year 2004 diesel trucks and buses. The goal is to reduce nitrous oxide, or NOx, emissions by half. Currently, there are two basic approaches to reducing emissions. One involves expensive retrofits of existing diesel engines and the addition of filters to screen out particles. The other approach is to switch to a cleaner source of fuel such as compressed natural gas. Cleveland and other Ohio cities have been buying new natural gas buses, although the cost of the vehicles -- and the rising price of natural gas -- make it an expensive proposition. But there's a new alternative to diesel fuel, one that doesn't require any vehicle modifications. In February, Cleveland-based Lubrizol unveiled a new low-emissions diesel fuel. Lubrizol's PuriNOx expert Paul Basar says the reductions start the moment you fill up the tank.
Paul Basar- That's made up of a proprietary additive that Lubrizol manufactures, regular diesel fuel, and purified water. We are experiencing NOx reductions on the order of 30% and particulate reductions on the order of 50%.
KS- Since August of last year, one local bus fleet has been experimenting with the new fuel. Frank Polivka heads Laketran, Lake County's transit authority. He says six months of fuel trials have convinced him that PuriNOx really works.
Frank Polivka- If you hit the throttle on a bus that's fueled with regular diesel fuel, you get a little black puff of smoke. Where if you hit the throttle on a bus that's using PuriNOx, you see nothing. It's very clear.
KS- Polivka says the new fuel alone would allow him to meet the 2004 emissions standards with no changes to his fleet. But Polivka can't fill up with PuriNOx yet, because the U.S. EPA hasn't approved it for use. One of the new fuel's biggest advocates is U.S. Senator George Voinovich, who heads the clean air subcommittee. He says other governments are already using the fuel.
George Voinovich- And they're using it in Europe right now and the European governments are encouraging people to buy diesel fuel that has this new component in it. And we can't get that through the EPA.
KS- But it's not actually the EPA that's causing the hold-up. The problem lies in the way in which testing of new vehicle fuels is done. EPA regulations call for testing anytime there's a significant change in the chemical make-up of an existing fuel. Dave Kortum of the U.S. EPA fuels support program in Washington says Lubrizol just needs to complete the testing.
Dave Kortum- In fact, we've been encouraging Lubrizol to do this testing for maybe a year, year and a half, maybe even two years. And the testing could in fact be finished right now.
KS- But Lubrizol's Paul Basar says the addition of water to their fuel shouldn't require additional testing.
PB- Since the blend of the fuel is basically made of three components -- diesel fuel, which of course is an EPA registered material, our additive, which is already got EPA registration, and then the third component being water, our position is that the summer blend doesn't really require any additional testing.
DK- Congress decided in the Clean Air Act that we had to have some kind of screening process for new fuels and additives. And when you add, you know, 20% water or 20% of another oxygen to diesel fuel, you're clearly going to do something to the way that burns.
KS- In fact, Kortum says if Lubrizol started the toxicity tests now, it would probably take only a year before PuriNOx would be approved. But Lubrizol officials say they're still negotiating with the EPA over whether the test needs to be done at all. That leaves clean air advocates like Kevin Snape of the Clean Air Conservancy in Cleveland frustrated that a proven product like PuriNOx isn't already on the market.
Kevin Snape- I mean, we can't fix transportation. Not in a holistic way. But we can make huge marginal improvements in transportation. I mean just doing that so every bus that goes along I-90 or I-71 that goes through there is putting out half the pollutants it was. That would be noticeable.
KS- PuriNOx is already approved for use in stationary diesel engines like mining equipment. And this year Lubrizol hopes to sell PuriNOx to California to operate its new diesel-powered electric generators. But until it's approved by the EPA, buses and trucks won't be able to take advantage of the new fuel. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN.