Driving refining change: Part 1

A look at how automotive emissions legislation and the drive for energy sustainability are impacting the refining industry.

Stephen Harrison
Linde Gas

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Article Summary

The European Union (EU) has designated 2013 as “The Year of Air”, with issues around clean air taking centre stage during environmental policy discussions throughout the year. That the European Commission is collaborating with the World Health Organisation on this matter is a strong message that air quality is a major concern in Europe and globally.

Both recent - and upcoming - legislation on automobile emissions has become the major change agent within this environmental arena. As with all legislation, regulation around emissions levels the playing field for all stakeholders in the automotive industry, effectively ensuring a competitive business climate. All participants must adjust their operations to comply with the latest regulations, leaving no-one at a competitive disadvantage.

Legislation also has the purpose of setting common targets within geographic economic zones such as the USA and the EU, aligning the many diverse organisations involved in automotive R&D and the production supply chain through common goals and objectives. This ensures that consistent standards are set for the industry and that change applies across the board, with all players being measured by the same performance yardstick.

In this industry R&D to improve the environmental performance of vehicles demands substantial investment. A high level of technical complexity is involved, with great reliance on first and second tier suppliers, who are among a vast number of partners in the automotive value chain. Therefore, when all these technology partners work towards a clear and common target, such as limiting the amount of carbon dioxide or nitric oxide emitted from a car, the fragmented value chain aligns all its resources to achieve this common objective.

Another common benefit of legislation is that it creates an enabling environment for cost effective transfer of technology, by broadly communicating best practice to achieve the required changes - for example, offering guidance on the latest analytical measurement instrumentation.

An excellent example of technology transfer is the Euro IV, V and VI emission standards developed for European markets that have been adopted elsewhere in the world, for example South Korea and China. Europe has successfully prescribed targets and adopted relevant and useful technology to achieve targets, and this effective approach is being replicated elsewhere.

Today there are three main global legislation groups related to automotive emissions coming out of Europe, the USA and Japan. European legislation is already progressing towards Euro VII, while in the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) takes a leading role. The USA also has federal environmental legislation, as well as certain state-specific regulations and one of the most common terms, “ultra-low emissions vehicle” (ULEV), in fact, derives from California state legislation. There is also a formidable legislative movement in Japan, since a large number of automotive producers originate in that country. China, however, which also has a substantial automotive industry in terms of the number of production centres, tends to take its cue from European legislation.

So, what are the common goals of all this disparate geographical legislation? Firstly, legislation seeks to drive fuel economy by developing more economical ways to move people and goods from A to B, in order to conserve the world’s dwindling fossil fuel resources for future generations. There are also economic benefits associated with the issue of fuel economy, as the more economic it is to move people and goods, the more competitive a market will be. The other key goal of legislation is to mitigate the effects of damaging automotive emissions, such as carbon dioxide, on climate change. This is also closely linked to the goal of fuel economy, as the less fuel we burn, the fewer emissions are released into the atmosphere.

Environmental impact
In terms of climate change the industry also looks at other greenhouse gases with global warming potential (GWP). An example is nitrous oxide, which has a much higher GWP than carbon dioxide, but because it exists in relatively low quantities in the atmosphere, it attracts less headline press. Other issues exist around particulate matter and soot and there is a more recent focus on minimising the emission of any substance that has stratospheric ozone depleting potential, since stratospheric ozone’s role is to absorb potentially harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun.

For the first time, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are being included into US EPA protocol gases. Not that long ago, these greenhouse gases were introduced in addition to - what was previously referred to - as the criteria pollutants - the six most common air pollutants of concern: ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur oxides, particulate matter and lead. This is a significant step forward that could even be described as a fundamental evolution in legislation, not only towards controlling toxic gases, but also those which contribute to global warming. 

Automotive emissions such as nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide must also be controlled to protect our physical environment. These emissions can react with rainwater and create acid rain that damages forests and buildings, since it reacts with limestone and concrete to corrode structures. Ground water contamination is another concern, since the chemicals benzene and MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), added to improve engine combustion, are also damaging when they are washed down in rainfall.

Public health
With a strong historic US EPA focus on so-called criteria pollutants, much automotive legislation has been structured around public health issues, resulting in tightening emission targets. It is noticeable that there has been a tangible move from purely monitoring automotive emissions, to monitoring the ambient environment - including detecting the presence of chemicals in the air that the public is breathing. A significant section of legislation is moving into prescribing exactly what should be measured in the ambient environment, how often it should be measured and in which locations. And there is more data transparency around these findings than ever before, giving the public real time access to this important information.

Improving public health by controlling air quality is a key focus of automotive legislation. Air quality must be maintained at a level that ensures it does not cause disease. With this in mind, there is a contemporary focus on minimising ground level ozone that has the potential to damage the human respiratory tract and is produced principally by a reaction between nitric oxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Carbon monoxide is a prevalent gas in automotive exhaust systems that, in enough quantity, can damage the nervous system, while formaldehyde gas is categorised as a “probable carcinogen” and, like ozone, has the potential to cause respiratory problems. Benzene is a VOC that not only contributes to the ground level ozone problem, but is a toxic chemical and pollutant in its own right. It is a known carcinogen that can be inhaled from the atmosphere or absorbed into the human body by eating contaminated fish and crops. Nitrogen dioxide, ammonia and sulphur dioxide are other examples of gases that can cause health problems by weakening the respiratory system and rendering humans more susceptible to illness. Chemicals like this must be reduced or completely eliminated from automotive emissions.

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