by Roderick Conway Morris

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Cambustion Uses Brainpower to Beat Auto Emissions: In Search of the Cleaner Car

By Roderick Conway Morris
CAMBRIDGE, England 13 May 1996


The buzzword is ULEV, an acronym for ultra-low-emissions vehicle, and every major car manufacturer in the world is working overtime to crack the technology to turn the concept into reality.

But in a field where brainpower can prove more decisive than financial muscle, a small company, Cambustion Ltd., has not only been providing the industry with unique tools for analyzing the problem, but it may even have come up with a solution.

Founded in 1987 by Nick Collings, a member of the engineering faculty at Cambridge University, and four research associates, with almost no capital investment, Cambustion now has a staff of 15 and annual revenue of more than £1 million ($1.5 million).

Cambustion's inspiration was an engineering department project to develop a machine that could measure the components of exhaust emissions in real time, existing instruments being unable to follow the extremely transient nature of emission production in the engine. The result was the fast flame ionization detector -- a compact, highly sophisticated device capable of giving a precise picture of the hydrocarbons emitted from a gasoline engine millisecond by millisecond from the instant that the engine kicks into life. Hydrocarbons, largely unburned fuel, are a major cause of air pollution.

'Once we had the system going, and were using it for our own investigations, a succession of visitors to the lab said that they could use one of their own, so we began to think of how we might produce them commercially,' Dr. Collings said.

Having sounded out the banks and other potential investors, Dr. Collings and his colleagues decided not to borrow after all to finance their plans. They built the first ionization detectors themselves and marketed them from a small rented house in the heart of the medieval town.

Cambustion's client list now reads like a Who's Who of vehicle manufacturers and those in related fields: Robert Bosch GmbH, Chrysler Corp., PSA Peugeot Citroën SA, Chevron Corp., Daimler-Benz AG, Fiat SpA, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Honda Motor Co., Johnson Matthey PLC, Nissan Motor Co., Royal Dutch/Shell Group, Volvo AB and Volkswagen AG. The company has supplied more than 130 systems, each costing about £30,000.

Once they came up with the diagnostic tool, Cambustion's engineers focused on finding ways for automakers to satisfy the tough new emissions standards that are being introduced in the industrialized world.

One of the technologies under investigation involves improving the efficiency of the catalytic converter -- the device that cleans auto emissions -- by getting it to working temperature as quickly as possible after starting. Current systems do not reach optimum temperature for several minutes, during which time about three-quarters of the unburned hydrocarbons have been emitted, Dr. Collings said.

Cambustion, in collaboration with Ford, has developed an original system -- dubbed EGI, or exhaust gas ignition -- that uses exhaust gases to help heat up the catalytic converter more quickly, usually in a matter of seconds.

Although not yet commercially available, the EGI system is being promoted by its inventors as a possible solution to urban air pollution from auto emissions.

'Other sources of hydrocarbons, such as grass mowers, outboard motors, even barbecue lighter fluids, are known to be significant contributors to pollution, but are far more difficult to control,' Dr. Collings said.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024