The future looks dark for diesel cars

30th July 2018
Lanna Cooper

Diesel vehicle owners are facing an uncertain future. With the ban on new fuel vehicles looming in 2040, the push towards electric and ever-decreasing emissions tolerances, the future looks dark for diesel. Particularly when the manufacturers’ attempts to deal with particulate matter - the nasty sideeffect of burning diesel - aren’t working very well.

This is where the brains behind CGON’s fuel enhancement technology spotted an opportunity to make life better for motorists and the environment at the same time. Breakthrough Magazine finds out why frustrating filters are no longer the last line of defence.

If you’re the owner of a diesel car or van, you’re probably familiar with the slightly sore subject of Particulate Matter (PM). The carbon left over from unburnt or partially burnt diesel is bad news, particularly the small, ultrafine kind (PN) which poses a serious risk to human health.

In order to prevent PM from polluting the air, diesel vehicle manufacturers fit their models with filters (DPFs) designed to catch and contain this dangerous by-product. However, the modification has not been an unqualified success - as Simon Johnson, Director of CGON, realised when he bumped into his local postman.

“We estimate that about three million diesel cars have had those filters removed by their owners because they go wrong quite a lot,” Johnson said.

“Anecdotally, I arrived at home one day to find the postman parked up by my gate, revving the engine of his van. This was because of the filter. They work by getting hot and burning all the soot off the inside, but you need to get up to a good fast speed to do that, which is hard when you’re in a town or city. So eventually the filter clogs and you get warning lights on your dashboard, or the car goes into ‘limp home’ mode."

“So here was the postman, revving his engine and when I asked him how often he had to do it, he said, ‘About once a week, for 40 minutes at a time.’ Part of my daily journey is a fivemile blast on the M1 where I can go fast enough to clear the stuff out, so it never occurred to me that it could go wrong. But it’s a massive issue and it’s what started this journey.”

The journey in question has been the development of a range of hydrogen fuel additive systems designed not to replace the DPF, but to keep it clean, reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency. New MOT rules have now been introduced to make it easier for testers to spot failing or missing DPFs, so motorists will need to find another way to improve the filter’s performance. Johnson believes that CGON’s ezero box has the answer.

“People sometimes think our product is a hydrogen fuel cell, but it’s not, it’s an electrolyser,” Johnson said. “So we put in an electrolyte - potassium hydroxide - and pass a small current through it to break the electrolyte into its component gases, which are hydrogen and oxygen.

"We then pipe those gases into the engine manifold and the hydrogen air mixture blends with the fuel in the cylinder head. The result is a faster, more complete burn of the fuel, which has the effect of vaporising all the particulates up to the cylinder wall in the combustion chamber. That means we dramatically reduce particulate matter and have a beneficial effect on NOx (toxic nitrogen oxides). Most importantly for our customers, we also improve fuel efficiency, so it’s a triple effect."

“In a typical passenger car that we’ve had independently tested, we’ve been shown to get rid of 95% of PN and as a consequence, PM as well. We tested a Nissan Qashqai and in city centres, where it matters most, our product has reduced NOx by 50%.”

The ezero began life when former Royal Navy Engineer Brian Sheard was inspired by the electrolysers on board submarines, which convert sea water into oxygen and produce hydrogen as a by-product. Developing the box was a seven-year process for Brian. Following a round of crowdfunding, engineer turned serial entrepreneur Johnson joined the company and invested about £500,000 two years ago. But he added more than just cash and finally took over the business last year.

“Basically, they had run out of money and didn’t have a production ready box,” Johnson said. “The management in the business at the time didn’t have the skills to get the product into a market-ready position. The first thing we did was to immediately withdraw the product, put it back into design for three or four months and then test it thoroughly. We still weren’t happy with it so it went back for another set of modifications and now it’s finally on the shelves. We’ve had to go through a lot of certification and testing, so it’s been quite hard work to get it to market.”

Priced at £459 for cars and light vans - there are the ezeroH1 and ezeroH2 for larger vehicles - the box is an economical alternative to repairing a DPF, which can cost up to £1,000. With TV marketing in the pipeline, Johnson expects to see demand increase significantly this year.

You can have the ezero fitted to your vehicle by a network of installers at garages across the country. The network is currently 500 strong and even extends to Shetland and Orkney, but Johnson thinks it will boast 2,000 fitters by the end of the year. CGON pays the installers and supplies the boxes direct, in order to keep costs down for customers.

As Johnson explained, the ezero box itself is just one element of the business; alongside the installers’ network and the testing and development of the business infrastructure, there is a team of engineers who support customers if any problems occur.

Ezero boasts four patents to cover the electronics, materials, software and overall design. Although the central idea isn’t an entirely new one, Johnson believes this is by far the best execution of it.

“You only have to Google HHO generators to find examples of people developing projects in their garage and making wild claims. But those systems all have a number of technical issues that we’ve overcome.”

As Johnson explained, most of these projects pass the current through stainless steel, which can require a minimum of 6 or 7A and sometimes as much as 25A, whereas the ezero runs on around 2A - less than it takes to charge a mobile phone. Also, a by-product of using stainless steel is hexavalent chromium, a highly dangerous banned substance that cannot even be tested for in the UK.

Testing is an essential part of developing such a product and since the Volkswagen emissions ‘cheating’ scandal, the rules have changed, making the testing process incredibly expensive. All new models have to be tested in a real world setting, to avoid vehicles adopting a lab conditions cycle.

“It costs around £20,000 to carry out a test, so the people who have built hydrogen generators in their sheds haven’t been able to afford it,” Johnson said.

“Plus, we have a lot of software and electronics in our box to read what the car is doing. We don’t connect to the ECU because then we run the risk of interfering with the car’s own management system. We use the mass airflow sensor to tell us how much air is coming into the car and through our electronics, we produce enough gas to get a ratio that enables us to get this constant improvement in miles per gallon.”

However, diesel is already staring down the barrel of a Government gun, with new diesel and petrol vehicles to be banned in the UK from 2040 and major investment being ploughed into battery technology and electric car infrastructure. So, although the product will clearly be very useful to diesel drivers in the UK for a few decades, what’s the longterm view for ezero?

“There are a lot of questions to be answered about which economies can afford electric cars,” Johnson said. “But for us, we see the developing world as our long-term market. If you look to Africa and Asia, those markets are going to be using oil until the last drop has gone. Also, although the UK Government is saying there will be no more petrol or diesel cars in 20 years, there is petrol and diesel in the marine industry. We’ve just appointed our first marine dealer in Germany."

“In India, most of their pollution is not from traffic or transportation but from the generators used to create electricity in people’s houses, because the utility supplies are so patchy that everyone has a generator. In Brazil it’s cheaper to run your own diesel generator than to use the grid. So transport is only part of the opportunity for this product. We’re already looking way beyond the UK for our market.”

CGON has worked with Breakthrough funding, a company that helps UK SMEs achieve R&D tax credits - a government scheme created to enhance and reward innovation amongst UK businesses. Could you be eligible? Click here to learn more.

For more information, click here.

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