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April 07, 2007— Ottawa, Ontario

Climate change and pollution are fuelling considerable research on what we put into car engines and what comes out the tailpipes.

NRC researchers are working to pin down the characteristics of various candidates for the next generation of automotive fuels, looking for the ones that will deliver the best road performance with the least impact on the environment. Their work involves innovative analytical methods, new engine designs and alternative fuels such as bio-fuels and fuels from oil sands. The outcome of this research will set the stage for the next generation of automotive technology that increases combustion efficiency and reduces pollution to an unprecedented extent.

NRC researcher, Dr. Hailin Li, predicts that innovative engine designs could be on the market within the next decade, reducing emissions significantly.
NRC researcher, Dr. Hailin Li, predicts that innovative engine designs could be on the market within the next decade, reducing emissions significantly.

Dr. Hailin Li, at NRC, explores the behaviour of both conventional and alternative fuels in a special single-cylinder engine that enables him to manipulate aspects of the combustion process.

"We're trying to understand the effect of various fuels on lean burn combustion," he says. "We need to find the right fuel chemistry to ensure these fuels will burn efficiently at lower combustion temperatures." A fuel that is burned completely within the engine emits far less than one that burns only partially.

How cold weather affects fuel is also important to Canadian drivers, given how severe our winter can be. In fact, our typical winter temperatures may limit the adoption of fuels that incorporate novel blending components derived from certain agricultural raw materials, since they tend to form a waxy build-up at low temperatures.

Such operating limitations may hamper the marketability of some alternative fuels, even if such fuels emit lower levels of pollutants, such as particulates.

In his research to characterize fuels, Li is using laser-induced incandescence (LII) to measure particulates. "Using this technology, we can measure soot emissions from a travelling vehicle at parts per quadrillion," notes Li.

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Even if this seems like an excessive degree of precision, laser-induced incandescence is well suited to the analysis of innovative engine designs like the one Li is studying at NRC ― a high-pressure low-combustion temperature engine that can reduce soot emissions to almost zero.

Stuart Neill, a senior research officer at NRC, is sure that the diesel engines making their way onto the North American market in coming years will be nothing like the loud, polluting power plants of decades ago. Even the sulphur content of today's diesel fuel is a fraction of what it once was.

Yet that makes it all the more necessary to examine changes in the chemical makeup of fuels in conjunction with changes to new engine designs. Neill concludes that the success of these efforts may be all but invisible to most of us, which would suit drivers and vehicle manufacturers just fine.

"With these new engines, you can barely tell it's a diesel," he says. "And with microprocessor control, the engine switches between different combustion modes without the user being aware of it. They don't know it, but they're polluting less."

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