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The future of emissions regulations and technologies

Sept. 2, 2008
FleetOwner recently spoke with Dr. Walter G. Copan, executive vp of American operations & CTO for Clean Diesel Technologies, Inc., about the rapidly changing world of emissions control and regulation.

Dr. Walter G. Copan is executive vp of American operations & CTO for Clean Diesel Technologies, Inc., which focuses on the development of solutions to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy, including urea injection systems for selective catalytic reduction of NOx, diesel particulate filters and biofuels technologies. Before joining Clean Diesel Technologies, he was the principal licensing executive at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy. Dr. Copan also worked for many years at Lubrizol and is the author of numerous professional articles and papers. FleetOwner recently spoke with Dr. Copan about the rapidly changing world of emissions control and regulation.

Q: Does SCR have a long-term role to play in emissions reduction?

Copan: SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction) has a role to play as long as we are using internal combustion engines. We are in a time of significant innovation in our industry, but diesel power will still be with us for the next several decades. In fact, the use of diesel will actually expand, with much of that growth taking place in developing countries.

Alternative combustion regimes, such as low-temperature combustion, could eliminate the need for SCR/ EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) technologies if we did not need performance from our vehicles, but of course that isn’t the case. Talented scientists have been working to try to eliminate the parts of the combustion “map” where NOx and carbon dioxide are produced, but many of the pathways to do that (and hence eliminate the need for after treatment) reduce the efficiency of the diesel engine across the board. Overall, what is needed is power and high thermal efficiency—delivering the maximum usable energy converted from fuel. That is the real goal.

Many of the new-generation alternative fuels may also have fairly high combustion temperatures, which tend to produce NOx. If we can’t use aftertreatment to deal with that, the industry may be hamstrung when it comes to using some good alternative fuels. Another thing to remember is that SCR does not always mean urea/ammonia. It is a process that can use other materials.

For now, SCR delivers a lot of benefits, when we really need them, such as fuel economy. Our industry is one where you need technologies that are proven, cost-effective and robust, which SCR/EGR is. If you believe in a carbon-free future, however, a day may ultimately come when hydrocarbon-fueled internal combustion engines begin to disappear from the vehicle mix.

Q: Do you expect to see a pre-buy in 2009?

Copan: There is some evidence that we will see another pre-buy in 2009, such as occurred in 2006. However, economic drivers have changed the way many fleets are making purchase decisions today. Fuel efficiency is everything now; fleets must manage to the bottom line but they must also reduce emissions.

We actually have a wonderful opportunity in 2010 to have a positivepre-buy because people may elect to take advantage of the fuel efficiency gains they can get using EGR plus SCR. Letting SCR take over part of the NOx control burden allows engine systems to be optimized for performance again.

Q: As hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles become more prevalent, will the approach to regulating emissions have to change as well?

Copan: The emissions standards and test procedures we have in place now are not particularly well suited to measuring the impact of various alternative fuels or hybrids on air quality and the climate. We need some sort of total fuel efficiency metric, such as carbon footprint per ton-mile, and we don’t have an effective, standardized way to measure that yet.

We need to firmly establish the value proposition for hybrids and alternative fuels across different types of vehicles and applications, including measuring gas emissions that are not currently regulated. We really need to be able to measure a vehicle’s carbon footprint, energy balance and unregulated emissions. Clearly, we have a long way to go before we’re there.

Natural gas vs. diesel emissions is a good example. In some cases, low-emission diesel is a cleaner, better choice than natural gas, but diesel today is considered “dirty” and natural gas is considered “clean.” Natural gas or methane, however, which itself has a greenhouse gas effect over twenty times higher than carbon dioxide, is not regulated like a greenhouse gas emission is today. In order to move ahead, we have to do our best to understand the total impact of various power alternatives and approaches, and then put regulations and market-making strategies in place that incentivize the use of the best solutions and discourage the use of others.

Q: In the near term, where do you see emissions regulations going?

Copan: We are seeing much more focus on the goods-movement industry as a whole, beginning right at the ports and other major transportation hubs. These facilities are huge economic engines for our nation, but they are also epicenters for congestion and pollution from marine vessels, trains and trucks. People are beginning to ask questions such as, “What is the carbon footprint for moving freight over this segment by rail? By water? By truck? How can we reduce the total emissions associated with moving this freight? How can we do it the most cost-effectively?”

There is also an increased focus on older vehicles and on off-road vehicles as sources of pollution. Older vehicles have become a much larger part of the emissions burden and there has been a significant increase in the age of the off-road fleet besides. That makes them a natural category for retrofit-or-retire regulations, especially in non-attainment areas where air quality continues to be a major problem. Addressing this will require state-by-state plans for compliance.

Q: How do emissions and freight movement regulations impact the U.S. as a whole? What is really at stake here?

Copan: Transportation has always been at the confluence of our power in America. It has been our ability to make and deliver goods that has made us the great nation we are. We have a challenge, a great opportunity now to get our act together and look at goods movement as an integrated category encompassing fleets of various vehicles and vessels as well as the infrastructure. If we fail to do this, we may see the balance of power in the global economy shift to our detriment.

We simply have to take a more intelligent and holistic approach to reducing waste and improving the efficiency of goods movement if the U.S. is to maintain its competitive advantage. Today, there are too many (often well-meaning) incremental, isolated initiatives to improve efficiency or reduce emissions that don’t really change things. If we are not careful, we can nickel-and-dime the goods movement sector to death with these limited efforts. We can’t put tandem trailers on many highways today even if we wanted to, for instance, because the roads just can’t bear the loads. We have the ability and the resources to tackle this challenge together, but now we need the will to change.

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About the Author

Wendy Leavitt

Wendy Leavitt joined Fleet Owner in 1998 after serving as editor-in-chief of Trucking Technology magazine for four years.

She began her career in the trucking industry at Kenworth Truck Company in Kirkland, WA where she spent 16 years—the first five years as safety and compliance manager in the engineering department and more than a decade as the company’s manager of advertising and public relations. She has also worked as a book editor, guided authors through the self-publishing process and operated her own marketing and public relations business.

Wendy has a Masters Degree in English and Art History from Western Washington University, where, as a graduate student, she also taught writing.  

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