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Clean engines stall

Not coming: The Mercedes E320 Bluetec (left) and BMW 530i with 'High Precision Injection'.

Plumes of smoke surround the Aussie arrival of ultra-clean BMW, Benz and VW engines

8 May 2007

AUSTRALIAN car buyers are being denied access to some of the world’s cleanest passenger-car engines – and the manufacturers producing them have blamed strong overseas demand and lax fuel quality standards in Australia for the delay.

There is presently no timetable for the introduction to Australia of the latest hi-tech petrol and diesel powertrains from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen – the three car-makers leading the charge overseas with engines that offer dramatic fuel consumption and exhaust emission reductions which in some cases make them as environmentally friendly as a petrol-electric hybrid model from Lexus.

Local customers face a long wait for both BMW’s new lean-burn petrol engines that will be available in Europe this year and the ultra-clean Mercedes-Benz diesels that are already on sale in the United States and will soon arrive in Europe.

BMW’s ‘High Precision Injection’ engines are not suitable for Australia because local petrol contains too much sulphur.

There are apparently no technical barriers preventing the Mercedes Bluetec diesels operating here, but the company is not yet making them available to Australia.

Working in partnership with Daimler-Chrysler, Volkswagen is about to introduce Bluetec in Europe and the US in 2008, but there is no word on whether the technology will come to Australia.

Mercedes-Benz Australia Car Group managing director Horst von Sanden told GoAuto that he was pushing for Bluetec diesel technology to be made available here, but had been given no indication of when this may happen.

“With Bluetec there is no secret that the first country to be covered was the US, and in particular California,” he said. “You can think whatever you like about their regulations, but they are the toughest in the world and that’s why we had to make this technology being available there a high priority.

“Stuttgart has committed to be in Europe with (Bluetec) diesel availability by early 2008, and I can’t give you an exact timing on when this would flow down into our marketplace.

“Certainly, we will keep pushing because we want it as soon as available, but as you can appreciate it is a big technical challenge to implement this worldwide,” he said.

Mr von Sanden said there were no known issues that could prevent Bluetec diesels operating properly in Australia.

“There is nothing known to us. It is simply a timing issue – a normal delay from the first country down to the other countries,” he said.

Mercedes passenger-car drivers might have to wait for Bluetec, but DaimlerChrysler group trucks will use the technology from January 1, 2008. New trucks sold in Australia from next year must comply with the ADR 80/02 regulations, forcing companies to implement ultra-clean diesel technology.

4 center imageHi-tech petrol and diesel: (from top) DaimlerChrysler’s Bluetec GL, E-class and Jeep Grand Cherokee, the E320 Bluetec engine and diagram, and BMW’s lean-burn High Precision Injection six-cylinder engine diagram and cutaway.

Bluetec is the name of efficient diesel engines sold by Mercedes that dramatically reduce NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions through a process of ‘exhaust gas after-treatment’. There are two different types of systems, depending on the type of vehicle (see breakout).

The Bluetec engine is earning Mercedes plenty of plaudits, especially in the US, where the E320 Bluetec was named the 2007 World Green Car.

Similarly, the next generation of BMW lean-burn petrol engines promise fuel economy gains of almost 20 per cent.

A 530i sedan using the new lean-burn direct-injection engine technology delivers combined fuel economy of 7.5 litres per 100km (ADR 81/01), which is 0.4L/100km more efficient than the Lexus GS450h petrol-electric hybrid.

Instead, BMW Australia will introduce a regular Valvetronic-engined 530i, which returns 9.3L/100km, by mid-year.

The problem is that the new lean-burn engines run a special catalytic converter that requires petrol with less than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur.

Australian fuel standards currently allow 150ppm of sulphur, while premium unleaded petrol is scheduled to drop to 50ppm on January 1, 2008.

There is no timeframe in place to reduce the sulphur content in Australian fuel to 10ppm, which would bring it into line with European petrol. At this stage, BMW will only make the new lean-burn engines available in European Union countries, but plans to expand to other markets as fuel quality increases.

BMW Group Australia managing director Guenther Seemann said the new technology was cutting-edge and made the 5 Series a practical alternative to hybrid cars like the GS450h, which suffer from reduced boot space due to a large battery pack.

“With this lean-burn system there is no compromise for the customer,” Mr Seemann said. While acknowledging that Western Europe was currently the only region recognised as having suitable fuel for the BMW lean-burn system, Mr Seemann said Australia should be at least planning to improve its fuel quality.

“Western Europe leads the debate when it comes to clean fuels. It would be prudent for the Australian authorities to think now about cleaner fuel standards they want in place to be ready when other manufacturers follow BMW’s lead,” Mr Seemann said. “It would be a shame to have a clean engine technology with no compromises on the shelf and ready to go that would not be available in Australia.” Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) chief executive Peter Sturrock described the sulphur content issue a “small inconvenience” and urged car companies to adapt engines to run on Australian fuel.

He said that while there was no plan to reduce the sulphur content in local fuel (beyond the 2008 reduction of premium unleaded), the FCAI hoped to eventually improve the petrol quality so that it matched that of European fuel.

“We don’t back away from our need to ultimately harmonise engineering and fuel (standards with Europe),” Mr Sturrock said.

“We certainly want to bring to the country the very best (technology) from around the world. That has been the intention right through the last many years with the government, and the government has committed to that. It is just a question of when that can be ultimately achieved.” Mr Sturrock said it would take time for the Australian oil industry to improve its fuel quality and cut sulphur levels to 10ppm.

“There will be ultimately a point, around the end of the decade or perhaps thereafter, where we ultimately get to that point, but it does require considerable time and notice to everybody,” he said.

“It requires substantial refinery investment from the fuel providers, from the oil companies and so on, so it is a reasonably complex issue.”

Bluetec explained:

THERE are two types of ultra-clean diesel that are covered by DaimlerChrysler’s Bluetec banner, both of which dramatically cut NOx (nitrogen oxides) in exhaust gases before they are released.

One Bluetec system is designed for passenger vehicles, while the other is used for large SUVs and trucks.

The former features a modified NOx storage catalytic converter which includes patented ammonia generation. It works with a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) catalytic converter. Using this system, the ammonia reacts with the NOx in the exhaust to form water vapour and nitrogen gas.

The second system for heavier SUVs and trucks uses an additive called AdBlue, which is made up of urea, a compound that can be produced synthetically or derived from urine. The additive, which is stored in a separate tank, is injected into the exhaust where it generates ammonia, which in turn reacts with the NOx to form water vapour and nitrogen gas.

BMW's lean-burn explained:

BMW’S lean-burn technology is employed in the German maker’s second generation of direct petrol injection engines.

It uses a different air-fuel mixture in order to minimise fuel consumption.

This high-precision injection system can switch to lean-burn mode, which combines much more air in the mixture. For this to work, a different de-NOx catalyst is required. This catalyst requires petrol with 10ppm or less of sulphur.

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