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Two clean engine prizes to tackle European air quality

The EU has launched two prizes to create clean engines that can reduce car emissions. Image credit: Pixabay/ elec_trick0

The race is on to design a clean engine that can be retrofitted into existing vehicles, and a low-emission, highly fuel efficient engine of the future, after the EU launched two prizes worth a combined EUR 5 million in a bid to improve Europe’s air quality and restore faith in the European automotive sector.

The prizes were launched at the Transport Research Arena conference in Warsaw, Poland, on 20 April and are designed to trigger new ideas about how to improve engine design.

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: ‘Prizes are a great way of rewarding and stimulating innovation, and clean engine technology is something we must support if we want to achieve our ambitious climate, energy and air quality goals.’

The Engine Retrofit for Clean Air prize, worth EUR 1.5 million, will be awarded to the best technology that can be put into existing engines to improve their performance, while the EUR 3.5 million Cleanest Engine of the Future prize, will go to the best design for an effective engine with negligible toxic emissions and low fuel consumption.

The idea is to clean up air pollution in Europe’s cities, which is responsible for more than 400 000 premature deaths each year and is a high priority for many city authorities.

The Issue

Air pollution is the top environmental risk factor for premature death in Europe.

Studies by the World Health Organization reveal that exposure to air pollutants during pregnancy has also been associated with adverse birth outcomes, including reduced foetal growth, pre-term birth and spontaneous abortions.

Recent research also suggests that exposure in early life can significantly affect childhood development and trigger diseases like allergies, asthma or diabetes later in life.

However, tests affirm that on-road nitrogen oxides emissions of light-duty diesel vehicles differ substantially between laboratory testing and actual on-road driving, with average discrepancies of four to seven times, even for very recent vehicles.

It is also hoped that the new technologies, the performance of which could be challenged under laboratory and real driving conditions, will work to restore faith in the automotive sector.

Last year, German carmaker Volkswagen hit headlines after US regulators accused it of including software in many of its 2.0 litre engines to circumvent emissions standards for nitrogen oxides.

‘I think all of us in the auto industry would agree that the last year has been a very difficult one for us, very difficult indeed,’ said Professor Neville Jackson, chief technology and innovation office with Ricardo plc, a British engineering consultancy, who spoke at the launch of the prize.

‘We now have what I would perceive as a lack of trust by customers in the auto industry, particularly about taking our environmental responsibilities seriously. So what can we do to regain credibility? Ultimately, how to remove the internal combustion engine from the (list of topics in the) air quality debate has to be the goal.’

The reason for encouraging innovation through so-called inducement prizes rather than the traditional research funding routes is to spur new thinking and new ways of doing things, said Maurizio Maggiore from the European Commission at the launch in Warsaw.

‘Someone said that the lamp was not invented by someone who made candles,’ he said. ‘So maybe taking another approach could help. We are trying to get people with other backgrounds involved.’

Cleaner hybrids

While much of the ongoing research in the transport sector is focusing on the shift to electrification, Maggiore says that improving the combustion engine of the future is a worthwhile endeavour as it can be used to make hybrid engines even cleaner.

‘At the moment I am appalled to see that there are plug-in hybrids that are using dirty engines,’ he said. ‘When they are electric they are clean, when they are on the combustion engine they are dirty. So we think that even if there was a runaway success towards electrification, there would be still a place for a clean combustion engine to be coupled with electrification.’

We now have what I would perceive as a lack of trust by customers in the auto industry, particularly about taking our environmental responsibilities seriously.’

Professor Neville Jackson, Ricardo plc

The Horizon Prize for Cleanest Engine of the Future will go to the best design for a gasoline or diesel engine that can provably reduce emissions of pollutants to the lowest possible levels, delivers better fuel economy and doesn’t create other problems.

Crucially, the evaluation will take into account whether the engine includes measures against defeat devices to avoid the potential for manufacturers to cheat on emissions testing. The engine will also need to be integrated into a vehicle to show that it works under real conditions.

‘We have taken care of recent history,’ said Maggiore. ‘Therefore we have several ways of trying to avoid that any device or anything is used to comply with the (tests) without actually delivering.’

The technology produced through the Engine Retrofit for Clean Air prize could be on the market in as little as five years, depending on how radical the design is, said Maggiore.

The new technology should reduce pollutant emissions in real driving conditions, while not affecting the operational capabilities of the retrofitted vehicles.

The closing date to apply for the Engine Retrofit for Clean Air prize is 12 September 2017, while the prize for the Cleanest Engine of the Future is open until 20 August 2019.

Applicants from all fields are encouraged to apply and have total freedom in the approach they take. 

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