On October first, diesel engine companies must meet new emissions standards or face stiff penalties from the EPA. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports from the headquarters of Cummins Inc. in Columbia, Indiana on the technology and politics of making engines cleaner.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. Im Steve Curwood. On October 1st, all new engines that power big rig diesel trucks will have to meet new emission standards for nitrogen oxides or NOX, a major smog-producing pollutant. Its been a bumpy road for diesel engine- makers trying to beat the governments deadline. And not all are there yet. But, the folks who make the Cummins Diesel in Columbus, Indiana were the first to certify an engine that meets the new standard. Living on Earths Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on what it took to get there.
(WHIRR OF MACHINERY)
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The giant plant where Cummins, Inc. builds its engines feels a little like an over-sized toy factory. Its clean and well-lit, with lots of primary colors. And its surprisingly quiet. In one corner, behind a wall of Plexiglas, engines are getting their finishing touch, two coats of bright red paint.
OSBORNE: Right now, were doing the first coat. The first robots painting the back of the engine; the other one is doing the bottom.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: John Osborne directs operations here. The robots he points to look like giant black ostriches, continually sneezing red from their noses. Their heads bob and swivel while the engine hangs patiently from chains. Then its pulled over to a second set of robots for another coat.
OSBORNE: The system knows what the engine is. The robot knows if its a high turbo or a low turbo, so itll know how to react to that and get the paint on properly.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That could be important come October 1st when the robots will be dealing with a new engine. That new engine will have a few extra parts that need painting. Those parts will cut emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOX, down to almost half of what a current diesel engine produces. Of course, painting the new engine is the least of Cummins challenges. The company has spent many years, and over a billion dollars, developing the technology to meet EPAs new emission standards. Its called cooled exhaust gas re-circulation, or cooled EGR. And its been designed and honed here in Cummins technical center where engines and test cells run around the clock.
OSBORNE: Here we go.
(SOUND OF DOOR OPENING AND AN ENGINE RUNNING)
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: At its most basic, cooled EGR works by bringing the engines exhaust back into the engine at a cooler temperature. The overall effect is cooler combustion which produces less NOX.
HAEGELE: Let me walk you over here first.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Glen Haegele winds through workstations and computer banks over to the lab where he and other technicians monitor whats coming out of the engines.
HAEGELE: The engine exhaust is diluted into a tunnel, and then these gray gas analyzers give you a real time measurement of the NOX and the hydrocarbons and the CO, all the gaseous elements that come out of the engine. And then, of course, we cant be above a certain level.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The new engines have spent over a hundred thousand hours in test cells. Theyve traveled six million miles on the road in field tests. The challenge isnt simply reducing their NOX emissions; its reducing NOX while maintaining the engines power and durability. Haegele walks over to a cart thats loaded with black, greasy parts.
HAEGELE: This is the guts of the engine.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: After testing, the engines are broken down, part-by-part. All 260 of them.
HAEGELE: This is probably the most critical thing we do after the test. After weve measured all the parts and weve cleaned them all up and laid them out, all the engineers come down and review their parts.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: This is how they know what will last and what wont, which materials work, and which dont. The idea, says Glen, is to make the transition to the new EGR engines as painless as possible for the people who use them.
HAEGELE: Ideally, we have an engine that the customer would never know theres anything different under the truck than what he had a year ago.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But even if the new engines run as hard and fast as their predecessors, truck companies will notice the difference. Not only will the engines cost more up front; theyll cost more to run because theyre less fuel-efficient. Thats because while NOX is reduced under cooler conditions, fuel economy is best when combustion is hotter. Cummins estimates trucks with EGR engines will see their gas mileage drop by three to five percent. For a truck that often travels a quarter million miles in a year, thats a lot of extra gas. And for truck companies, its a lot of extra money.
VUJOVICH: I think the most difficult thing is something that we have all wrestled with. And that is, serving the two masters.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Tina Vujovich is VP of environment at Cummins. The two masters she speaks of are the EPA and the truck companies, who are so nervous about the cost and technology of the new engines, theyve ordered a surge of the pre-EGR engines to be built before the October deadline.
VUJOVICH: Unfortunately, we werent able to satisfy both masters at the time that this product gets launched. We have a great performing product. Its going to cost our customers, however. And its been difficult. There have been many times where, I believe, employees would have rather just dropped the ball and said, "Lets figure out a way to make this go away."
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Thats what Cummins competitors were still doing as of just a couple of months ago: lobbying Congress to push the administration to roll back the deadline, or, at least, to lighten up on the penalties for non-compliance. But, the EPA held firm. And except for Caterpillar, the other engine-makers say theyve got an engine ready to build on October 1st. Vujovich is a big amused at the other companies attempts to evade the new standards.
VUJOVICH: Oh, we would love to get out of it. And we would like nothing more than to have 15 more months. But, we said we would do it. We signed a contract with the government. Were going to do what we said we would do.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That seems to be the general attitude at Cummins. Not exactly eagerness, but determination to do what it committed to. In the tech center, and at the plant, employees know what it is theyve been working towards.
INGRAM: I think its wonderful. Like I say, I helped build this line, so Im pretty proud of it.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Alan Ingram is holding a camera and standing next to one of the brand new EGR engines. He says hes making something called "line art."
Inside a Cummins factory.
INGRAM: Its got all the how to put the pieces on, how to torque them, any special lubricants or special procedures youre supposed to go through.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ingrams photographs and text will become a step-by-step booklet for employees on "the line" as its called, as they put the new engine together. He says there are a few new parts to deal with, but that its worth it for cleaner air.
INGRAM: Our next version of this, you could stick your mouth on an exhaust pipe and breathe the air coming out of it. (LAUGHTER IN BACKGROUND) Yeah, its supposed to be that clean.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It may be a bit premature to recommend taking a sip from that 18 wheeler parked at the rest stop. But Ingram is right, emission standards are only getting tougher. By 2007, engine makers will have to cut not only more NOX, but sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, too. Most likely, that will mean some new parts will need painting.
For Living on Earth, Im Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Columbus, Indiana.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Newsletter [Click here]
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth