August 2008

Liquid engineering

Using a fuel catalyst to improve efficiency and decrease emissions

By D. Zlotnikov

The job of a site manager has always presented its share of challenges, but current circumstances certainly aren’t making things any easier. Financial pressure is continuing to mount as oil prices maintain their upward trend. Environmental regulations are growing more stringent by the day, placing tighter limits on maintenance schedules, and sometimes even requiring the replacement of units that fail to meet the new emissions guidelines.

Rudy Pollino, a site manager at Veolia Environmental Services, was confronted by just such a challenge with one of his company’s units — a Hitachi 330L excavator. “From the time I bought that excavator, it was smoking,” said Pollino. “I called the manufacturer and was told that it was normal and that this machine would keep running just fine.” Meanwhile, Pollino was told that the machine wouldn’t pass the emissions test when the new guidelines came into effect. At that point, he realized that he would have to replace the machine itself.

However, around this same time Pollino was approached by a representative from American Clean Energy Systems (ACES) who was promoting a diesel fuel additive that was purported to boost fuel efficiency by 15 per cent, lower particulate emissions by 50 per cent, and decrease carbon monoxide and dioxide emissions as well as engine part wear. Pollino decided that the fastest way to make the rep disappear was to prove the product for the “snake oil” he figured it had to be, given its lofty claims. So he put it to the ultimate test — the smoking excavator. “I dedicated a tank to the fuel with the additive, and fuelled only the excavator from that tank,” said Pollino, “and three days later you couldn’t tell the machine was running and it had stopped smoking.”

Pollino’s data also showed an 18 per cent decrease in the excavator’s fuel use. The two factors together were enough to convince Pollino to start using the product in his entire fleet. Over the last five years, Pollino’s 30-machine fleet — which ranges from 6-inch diesel-powered water pumps to 50-ton 836G and H compactors to D8 bulldozers — showed consistent fuel savings of 18 to 21 per cent.

ACES isn’t new to the fuel additive game. Brian Schubert, the company’s vice president of chemical technologies and special projects, said that the original idea emerged out of a U.S. military remote-controlled drone project. Schubert explained that the drones’ stealthy nature meant that regular fuel could not be used for fear that a spark from the spark plugs could be detected. But the alternative, castor oil-based fuel had a tendency to gum up the engine to the extent that after every flight, the drone had to be disassembled and cleaned. ACES’ solution was to improve the combustion cycle efficiency and increase the lubricity inside the engine. With that first success, ACES realized they could alter the formulation slightly and get the same benefits from ordinary diesel and gasoline engines. Forty years and $10 million of independent testing later, the product is now available for commercial use.

The ACES product, Schubert clarified, isn’t an additive in the commonly used sense of the word, but rather a catalyst. Whereas the majority of fuel additives alter the chemical composition of the fuel, a catalyst alters the physical properties of the mix, but does not directly participate in the combustion.

However Schubert cautioned that the advantages of the additive don’t always show themselves in three days. In fact, he said the company now insists on an extensive evaluation period with every new client. “When we enter into an evaluation, we work with the client to select a representative sample of their equipment — at least 10 per cent of their fleet,” he explained. “Then we bring in a third-party company and run each of the selected units for a full hour to get a baseline.” With that baseline in hand, the units go through a cleanout cycle (at double the normal additive ratio), ranging between 30 and 45 days, depending on how heavily each machine is used. It’s not uncommon to see an increase in emissions at that stage, as the carbon residue accumulated in the engine is dislodged.

Following the cleanout cycle, the machines are used at the regular additive concentration of 1:2000 for three to six months, to allow the adaptive strategy system to adjust to the new fuel mix, and the lubricity-increasing component to permeate the metal and take full effect. But at the end of this period, when the third-party evaluator is brought back to compare the results, Schubert said that the improvements are dramatic. With independent tests conducted by groups like the U.S. Department of Energy and the NASA Goddard Space Center, he said that ACES has a large amount of data to back up its claims.

Using a fuel catalyst probably won’t solve the current climate crisis, and the job of a site manager will definitely continue to be a challenging one; however, it does represent a step in the right direction — at a time when every step counts.

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