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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Smog-Eating Car?

Air Date: Week of

Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles on a possible new weapon in the war against smog — a chemical which uses heat from a car's radiator to convert smog back into breathable oxygen.


CURWOOD: Among the pollutants that aggravate asthma is ground-level ozone. This is not the upper-level ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet light, but rather, hyperactive oxygen molecules that are formed when sunlight interacts with car exhaust. The fancy name is photochemical smog. Ozone is horrible for lungs, but if it can be converted into ordinary oxygen of course it's wonderful to breathe. And now a New Jersey company is testing a way to use heat from cars to convert ozone to oxygen by putting a chemical catalyst on car radiators. Stephanie O'Neill reports.

(Tones from a car; a motor revving up)

O'NEILL: This new Ford Windstar van is a test vehicle for the Premair Catalyst. Joshua Roycht is one of 6 students chosen to drive the van and 2 other smog-eating cars along Southern California's busy highways.

ROYCHT: We have sampling ports in front of the " in front of the radiator and behind the radiator, and they actually suck the air that's going through the radiator back and analyze it to tell us how much ozone it contains. Right now, in this parking lot, we're looking at 23 parts per billion ozone.

O'NEILL: The van's radiator is coated with a catalyst which does the seemingly impossible. It transforms ozone, one of the most dangerous components of smog, into oxygen. But while there are high hopes for the technology, until the road tests are completed it's uncertain just what impact the Premair Catalyst will have, especially in large, smoggy regions such as Los Angeles.

BENSON: You're dealing with 400 square miles in the LA Basin, roughly. It's an enormous quantity of atmosphere that you'd have to clean up.

O'NEILL: Dr. Sidney Benson is a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, and member of the Locur Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

BENSON: And then you have to look at the fleet of cars that we have, which are, and buses and trucks, and you're talking something on the order of about 10 million. And the question is, can that really make a dent on that many cubic feet of gas?

O'NEILL: Another big question is whether the Premair will eat more smog than the car it's on will produce. If the Premair Catalyst does what its designers hope, it could be used on other so-called heat exchangers, such as stationery air conditioners. Lou Ross is a vice chairman at the Ford Motor Company, which is sponsoring the Premair road tests.

ROSS: In areas of high ozone, I believe it will end up by being on all air conditioning units that are used in hope and office buildings. And the LA Basin, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, it will have broad application, far broader than the auto industry.

O'NEILL: The smog-eating technology created by the New Jersey-based Englehard Corporation, the same folks who brought us the catalytic converter, will undergo intensive testing through March, with the catalyst available soon after if it proves successful. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.



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