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Engineering professor receives grant to find clean combustion engines

M.D. Anderson Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Michael Harold received a $2.1 million grant to research a cleaner, more efficient combustion engine. | Courtesy of UH Media Relations

The chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering will receive a three-year, $2.1 million grant to research cleaner, more efficient combustion engines — offering help to the transportation industry.

Professor Michael Harold applied for the research grant from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory earlier this year and will receive it by the end of September.

“If we successfully complete our project, we can bring more fuel-efficient cars on the road that use advanced engine technology,” said Lars Grabow, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who is working with Harold on the research. “In particular, we are focusing our efforts on low-temperature combustion engines, in which the energy content of the fuel is more efficiently converted to energy that drives the car.”

The team is focused on identifying new materials that work better than what is currently used to clean car emissions, Harold said. Current catalysts used in conventional engines are expensive precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium.

“This specific project is focused on an emerging type of more efficient combustion engine,” Harold said. “That is somewhere in between diesel and gasoline, but one of its attributes is that it runs at a lower temperature than typical combustion engines, like the cars that we drive, and that low temperature of operation makes it that much more difficult to clean the exhaust.”

The old system won’t work in the new engines, but the new treatment system might work in older engines, according to a UH news release.

“Our goal is to improve the tailpipe emissions treatment system, such that it traps (nitrogen oxide) at low temperatures and releases it over the catalytic converter when the engine runs at higher load and higher temperature,” Grabow said. “In addition, we plan to modify the catalytic converter to have better efficiency at lower temperature.” 

Catalytic converters change car exhaust into water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Carbon dioxide is a pollutant, but is less damaging than raw exhaust. Harold and his team must find a catalyst that works a low temperature, since the commonly-used catalysts only work at the high temperatures at which conventional engines burn.

The multi-organization project includes partners with other institutions and companies.

The research will be collaborative, Harold said, with the University of Virginia, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Oak Ridge, Tenn. and Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

In addition, Johnson Matthey Inc., a London-based company whose expertise is in making catalysts, and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles Inc. will be collaborating.

Around 10 to 15 people will be working on this project, Harold said.

According to Air Alliance Houston’s website, more than 68 million pounds of pollution were released during “malfunction and maintenance” events in Texas in 2015.

“Air pollution in the developing world is a real challenge, and it continues to be challenging in the West,” Harold said. “Cities like Houston face real air challenges, (and) that really presses the need for cleaner vehicles but also at the same time more efficient vehicles.”

Grabow’s methods will help to converge on the new catalytic materials and avoid the “Edisonian” approach, Harold said.

The downside is that at low temperatures, the currently available emissions after treatment systems do not work well, especially during the cold start period, Grabow said.

A key pollutant is nitrogen oxide, which causes smog.

“In the discovery process, there is a lot of testing, trial-and-error and high throughput screening,” Harold said. “All to get to the answers as quickly as possible, so we can then optimize the discovery, develop it and get it ready for commercialization.”

If the project is successful, it would mean better air, less smog and more fuel-efficient cars without compromising engine power in the city of Houston, Grabow said.

Publishing research, empowering students, defending a student’s thesis and teaching good lectures are just some of things professors do, Harold said.

“But when you get a grant, it is an acknowledgment from your colleagues out there that you are doing good work, so it makes you feel good that you are on the right track, and it helps pay the bills,” he said.

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