Cleaning up our streets

15th December 2015
Joe Bush

Emissions legislation is something that is at the forefront of automotive development and something that’s certainly been in the news over the last few months. The demands placed on today’s vehicles mean that manufacturers are constantly under pressure to produce safer, smarter and greener cars, bikes, vans and trucks.

Wireless technology can play a huge role in this sector in much the same way as they have within consumer electronics. The acquisition of MIT spinout company Filter Sensing Technologies (FST) by CTS Corporation, a manufacturer of automotive sensors and electronics, back in October, will see an increase in the manufacture of FST’s wireless sensors, which can assist diesel engines use less fuel while curbing soot and ash emissions – thus meeting increasingly strict emissions limits.

Currently, the FST sensors are being piloted with OEMs across the US, Europe and Japan for commercial vehicles as well as construction and agricultural equipment. The sensors could be available to the automotive industry within a few years.

The FST sensors are basically metal antennas mounted inside the exhaust system of vehicles that use diesel particulate filters (DPF). In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency introduced strict emissions limits for diesel engines, resulting in the widespread use of these large ceramic filters, which capture more than 95% of soot and other particles emitted from diesel engines.

A downside to DPFs, however, is they become saturated frequently, sometimes every eight hours (depending on engine use), and must be cleaned. With diesel trucks, for instance, the engine ‘regenerates’ the filter by using some fuel to heat-up the exhaust to high temperatures and burn the soot, like a self-cleaning oven. Conventional technologies use pressure drop measurements and predictive models to roughly estimate build-up. If the estimates are off, soot and ash can also exceed the filter’s limit, impacting the pressure drop response, service life and fuel consumption.

With no way to accurately measure build-up in real time, OEMs generally programme a diesel truck’s control system to regenerate the filter more frequently than necessary, regardless of actual contamination.

FST sensors transmit a radio frequency signal very similar to those used for cell phones, through part of the vehicle’s emissions control system. As soot and ash accumulate in the filter, the signal strength decreases - the weaker the signal, the more build-up. This data is received by the onboard engine control system, so the engine only initiates self-cleaning when needed and cuts off when the filter is cleaned, saving fuel and cutting costs for operators.

The sensors have so far proved effective in field and engine tests. In a two year study with heavy duty trucks operated by the New York City Department of Sanitation, funded in part by the Department of Energy, the sensors demonstrated the potential to cut the frequency and duration of filter regeneration in half in some cases, which may enable a one to two percent fuel savings. This can be significant for fleets of trucks such as those in the study, which use roughly 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually.

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